Bad Bill: Drug Testing Welfare Applicants

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Jane Nelson
Patrick Michels
Texas Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound with Rick Santorum

Senate Bill 11

Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound)

Back in the 1980s, talk-show radio hosts and prominent Republicans complained of welfare queens riding around in Cadillacs. Now, their imaginations are sparked by a similar stereotype: The drug fiend using her Lone Star card to score a hit. No matter that there’s no evidence that welfare recipients in Texas, who are already subject to strict rules and extremely stingy income-eligibility requirements, have a drug problem. That doesn’t stop Sen. Jane Nelson, a Republican from Flower Mound. She’s filed Senate Bill 11 to require every adult who applies for welfare—now called the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program—to subject themselves to the humiliation of a drug test. Even parents who are applying solely for their children would have to pee in a cup. Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have backed the idea.

You can see why conservatives would love this idea—and it would probably make for great campaign ads. But there are just a few hiccups. Similar drug-testing programs in other states haven’t saved any money. And it may well be unconstitutional.

Florida tried something very similar, and the results were clear. Only 2 percent of applicants tested positive for illegal substances, mostly marijuana. That’s a much less than the general population. But administering all those drug tests wasn’t cheap, and the program caught so few drug users that it ended up costing Florida more money—nearly $46,000 in the first year alone—than it saved from denying benefits to few who failed drug tests. But money isn’t what forced Florida to suspend the program.  That was done by a federal judge who declared the drug testing scheme unconstitutional. In late February, a federal appeals court agreed, effectively scuttling the law.

Sen. Nelson wouldn’t speak with us about her bill but in a November press release on the bill, she said: “It strengthens our efforts to prevent TANF funds from being spent on prohibited items … TANF is not payment for actual work. It differs from other government programs in that it provides direct cash assistance to qualifying individuals who commit to a path toward self-reliance. Ensuring these individuals are drug free and therefore able to re-enter the workforce is a goal we should all share.”

The Florida lawmaker who sponsored the original bill, state Rep. Jimmie Smith, said the law’s success is measured by the number of imitators. “We had about 37 states calling us and asking us, how did you do it?,” Smith said. “There are a huge amount of people who support this.”

Nelson’s proposal is even harsher than the laws passed in Florida and Georgia.

In those states, children aren’t punished for the sins of their parents. Welfare benefits may still reach kids through a “protective payee,” or an adult appointed by the state who will be financially responsible for directing welfare funds to the children. Not so under Nelson’s plan. Two-thirds of all welfare recipients in Texas are children, and if their parents fail a drug test— well, too damn bad.

Smith, the Florida legislator, says even though the drug-testing program cost money, the expense is “worth it” because it combats drug use. “I hear from people that go to get tested,” he said. “People are in line talking about how they can’t go out and party tonight [because of the testing].”

Nelson’s Senate Bill 11 stipulates that the state will pay for all drug tests out of federal TANF funds. So while the Texas taxpayer wouldn’t be on the hook, Nelson’s proposal would shrink the resources available for the state’s neediest.

Rachel Cooper, senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, also points out the logistical difficulties in arranging for drug-testing. The state would likely have to develop a contract with drug testing agencies, as well as arrange for transportation to a drug-testing site, and find some way to ensure that the testing would be 100 percent accurate. “This is something that the state has no experience in,” she says. “It’s expensive and unnecessary.”

So let’s recap: We have a bill that will cost the state money and shrink the already-meager TANF funds, may not catch many drug users, and, when it does, will rob poor kids of benefits. And it may be unconstitutional to boot. How about that for a trifecta.