WASHINGTON -- Just 37 out of more than 16,000 welfare applicants failed drug tests during six months of testing in Tennessee, The Tennessean reported this week.
Though Republican lawmakers in nearly every state have proposed drug tests for recipients of government benefits in recent years, Tennessee is one of only 12 states that have followed through with a testing program. Its results are typical: Very few poor people seeking benefits actually turned out to have dirty urine.
Yet despite the dubious results, an additional dozen states have already started considering similar legislation this year. NCSL says that legislatures are looking at proposals to drug test welfare applicants in Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia, where lawmakers advanced a bill in the state Senate on Tuesday.
And Gov. Scott Walker (R) wants Wisconsin to become the next state to put such legislation on the books. He wants statehouse Republicans to mandate drug tests for unemployment insurance and a number of other state programs, and to seek permission from the Obama administration to drug test food stamp applicants. Wisconsin lawmakers haven't yet introduced a bill.
Most drug testing proposals target Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal program most closely associated with the word "welfare." Federal law gives states some leeway to screen TANF applicants for drug usage. However, states are not permitted to make testing a condition of eligibility for unemployment insurance or food stamps, which, like TANF, are federal programs administered locally by states. Food stamps, which benefit 46 million Americans, have a much larger reach than TANF, which serves 3.4 million.
Tennessee's testing program is typical of state schemes enacted since federal courts in 2011 stymied a testing regime in Florida that required every single applicant to urinate in a cup. At that time, the courts ruled that the program ran afoul of constitutional privacy protections. To circumvent the decision, Tennessee now asks all applicants to answer written questions about drug use, and those people who say they've used drugs are then physically tested. Such "suspicion-based" screening makes the law less vulnerable to challenge from the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, though it doesn't make the group happy.
"These latest reports that less than one quarter of one percent of Tennessee TANF applicants tested positive for drugs underscore that such testing is a waste of taxpayer money," Hedy Weinberg, director of Tennessee's ACLu chapter, said in a statement Wednesday.
Backers of the drug test laws generally base their case on anecdotes from employers who say job applicants frequently fail drug tests. They also argue that even if the drug testing costs more than it saves, preventing taxpayer dollars from supporting drug abuse is a worthy expense.
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This story has been updated to include more recent comment from Hedy Weinberg,