TANF Drug Testing Is A Waste of Time and Money

Image of Oklahoma State Capitol

Can we finally drop the right-wing mythologies about people who receive government assistance given the failure of mandated testing programs to catch many poor people with illegal drugs in their systems?

Last year, the Republican-dominated Oklahoma Legislature passed a law that requires drug screening of adult applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF. The Oklahoma Gazette reported this week that only 29 out of about 1,300 applicants were supposedly caught under the new program from November 2012 to February 2013. That’s a whopping 2.2 percent, and even those who refused to take additional tests weren’t exactly caught doing illegal drugs or didn’t receive money. The Gazette reported that out of that 29 people, 16 had children who still qualified for assistance.

In Florida, before the law was overturned, a mandated drug testing program for welfare recipients only caught 2.6 percent of people who supposedly had drugs in their system.

Republican politicians throughout the country demonize people on government assistance by consistently depicting them as lazy drug users taking advantage of the nation’s welfare systems. This has been a GOP trope since former Republican President Ronald Reagan referred to a “welfare queen” in one of his 1976 campaign speeches. The demonization works especially well as a political tool in conservative states, such as Oklahoma, where college degree rates are lower than the national average.

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services already screened for drug use, but the new law added more tests and turned it into a punitive rather than rehabilitative process. TANF applicants testing positive for drugs now get rejected instead of referred for treatment.

Just because a person has detected drugs in their system also doesn’t mean they are intoxicated or can’t work.

These new drug-testing policies are a waste of taxpayers' money and are primarily used to harass poor people and create disparaging stereotypes about the impoverished, but that won’t stop the Republicans here.