Indiana wants to drug test welfare recipients (again)

Indiana State Seal

Last week Republican lawmakers in Indiana signaled a renewed effort to legislate drug testing requirements for welfare recipients. As the Indianapolis Business Journal reported Thursday, the policy would require people who receive help through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to complete a written test to determine the risk for drug addiction, and “[t]hose identified would be pooled together and half of those subjected to a random drug test.”

The new push for scrutinizing the 12,837 Hoosier families receiving assistance follows a similar attempt last year. That legislation was pulled after a House Democrat successfully amended the bill to include drug testing of the lawmakers themselves. According to the Herald Bulletin, the new screening proposal represents a broader reform effort “intended to reduce fraud, [and] will also limit what can be bought with food stamps and require food stamp beneficiaries to show a photo ID when making a purchase.”

Several of these ideas, though, face well-known legal and institutional challenges.

Both TANF and SNAP (food stamp) are joint state-federal programs and subject to federal stipulations on how those funds are administered. Also, an analogous policy of drug testing TANF participants in Florida was recently ruled unconstitutional in a U.S. District Court. As quoted in the Huffington Post, Judge Mary Scriven “agreed with an earlier court finding that ‘there is nothing inherent in the condition of being impoverished that supports the conclusion that there is a concrete danger that impoverished individuals are prone to drug use….’”

It isn’t clear that Indiana’s proposed workaround — the 64 question exam — would be enough to survive a constitutional limit against ‘suspicionless’ searches by the state. Moreover, the general efficacy of testing TANF recipients came into question in Florida after less than three percent of participants failed the screening — well below the national average. The available research also doesn’t support the idea that drug testing recipients addresses an urgent problem. As University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack wrote last year, “illicit drug use disorders are not common among welfare recipients.” According to the data other substance abuse (alcohol) and mental health disorders are far more prevalent — issues that aren’t addressed in the Indiana legislation and generally unmet in terms of social services meant to help low-SES individuals.

Still, the author of the bill, Rep. Jud McMillin, hoped that lawmakers in the state assembly would understand that the primary purpose would be “to try to get people into treatment who are having drug problems.” That sentiment wasn’t echoed by House Speaker Brian Bosma who said the policy is meant to “ensure public money is being used for the purpose intended and not for other purposes.” When asked if, as a recipient of state funding, he should also undergo drug-screening Bosma replied “If I looked like I wasn’t giving a full day’s work for that, perhaps.”

Note: Originally published at The McLean Parlor.

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