Commentary Law and Policy

Kansas Republicans Continue Their Assault on the Poor With New Punitive Drug Testing Mandates

Kari Ann Rinker

Advancing policies for the benefit of the rich, whilst kicking the poor among us in the teeth, is a mainstay of the Republican Party.

The GOP is busily trying to “re-brand” itself, with those on the front lines attempting to find softer and gentler ways to speak publicly about “touchy” subjects such as abortion, immigration, and gay rights.  However, a recurring theme that is not likely to undergo re-branding anytime soon is the demonization of the poor.  Advancing policies for the benefit of the rich, whilst kicking the poor among us in the teeth, is a mainstay of the Republican Party.

The demonization of the poor helped push our nation into welfare reform during the mid-1990’s.  Women on welfare were depicted as if they were impregnating themselves due to an obvious lack of self-control, then sitting back and living large on the government dime.  Through the years, little has changed in this regard.  A simple Google search of “welfare moms” will yield contempt for poor women in the form of angry pharmacists and urban dictionary ugliness, these results stand as examples of society’s contempt for women on government assistance.

So yeah, society sucks… but when makers of public policy chime in via their own hateful comments or via legislation requiring drug testing for welfare recipients, it is obvious that the GOP exists to prop up this sucky, sick societal viewpoint.  The GOP is chock full of Angry Pharmacists and Tea Party fanatics and no amount of re-branding, white washing or sanitizing is going to hide that fact.  As long as “pee in a cup” legislation continues to proliferate the states, it serves as further evidence of a war on the poor.  According to the National Conference on State Legislatures at least 28 states put forth proposals in 2012 to require drug testing or screening for public assistance.

Kansas is one of these states. Last session’s HB 2686 would have randomly tested one-third of all TANF and General Assistance (GA) recipients. The bill ultimately died in committee, primarily out of concerns relating to Florida’s failed experiment.  This is not an issue that will go away, however.  The Kansas GOP is back with a revamped version.  SB 149 would require drug testing of TANF and GA recipients, as well as those on unemployment “when a reasonable suspicion exists”.

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Much leeway is provided in determining where a “reasonable suspicion” may exist, leaving it up to the discretion of the Kansas Secretary of Children and Families.  This “reasonable suspicion” will likely serve as a vehicle for racial profiling.  Our current prison populations serve as testimony to the fact that the so called “war on drugs” has turned into an assault on minority populations.

If a “reasonable suspicion” is deemed to exist by the person who holds your next meal in their hands, your meal is withheld and a urinalysis is ordered.  If the test comes back with positive results, the person will be ordered to participate in a drug and job skills program before assistance is reinstated, and periodic testing will be conducted.  If a second test comes back negative, cash assistance will be suspended for a year, and another drug and job skills program is ordered.  If a third test comes back dirty, the individual is cut off from cash assistance for life.  I object to this legislation on many different levels.

On a practical level, this proposed program lacks important key details.  There is no fiscal note attached and no mention of how much this testing will cost the state, nor does it clarify what party (the state or the individual) will be charged with paying for the mandated drug treatment.

There are not a lot of options for affordable drug treatment programs in Kansas, and with the budget crisis in which the state now finds itself (thanks to Governor Brownback), increased funding for such programs is not likely. Assuring accountability and accuracy in tracking the compliance of these individuals will come at an administrative cost. Costs surrounding litigation relating to this legislation are also quite possible. These costs are not likely to be offset by any savings brought via program implementation. The Florida experiment shows this to be true, as the ACLU points out, “the testing program didn’t deter individuals from applying for help—an internal document about TANF case loads revealed that, at least from July through September, the policy did not lead to fewer cases.”

As an advocate for social justice and women’s rights, I feel yet another level of indignation regarding this proposal. SB 149 would act as government tool for discrimination against those who have sought financial assistance due to need. This legislation makes a supposition that people who are living in poverty are likely to be using drugs, when in fact most estimates show rates that are only a few percentage points higher than those found in the general population.

With little evidence that supports the targeting of this population, the oft-repeated mantra of those in opposition to “pee in a cup” legislation is to require that all recipients of government funding be subject to the same test.  It makes sense to me.  If this is to be non-targeted and non-discriminatory… let’s test farmers, politicians, state employees, and those receiving corporate subsidies.

The fact is that farmers, politicians and the like aren’t viewed with the disdain that people on assistance are viewed. The Kansas City Star the following noted the following from an interview with the new Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick:

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Olathe, said he has supported several ideas aimed at controlling how welfare money is spent. “It blows my mind when I’m in line shopping and somebody comes in that are getting benefits and have their card and I see what they’re spending money on,” he said.  “Cigarettes, alcohol. I’m not saying everybody does that. But some people do and we need to tighten it down.”

The fact is that the purchase of alcohol and cigarettes aren’t allowed with the “Vision Card,” which is a debit card preloaded with the participant’s benefits. It can’t even be used to purchase hot food.  Speaker Merrick is lying and demonizing the poor so that he might somehow justify his support for this unnecessary legislation.

This policy would target men and women alike, but most TANF adult recipients are women; men represented only 14.8 percent of adult recipients in 2010. This makes it especially relevant to women, who should see this bill as yet another invasion of their privacy by the state. It is but another chapter in the continuing saga of the war on women that continues to rage in Kansas.

This policy also puts the health and welfare of children at risk.  In a state where childhood poverty has increased 53 percent since 1970, there should not be any unnecessary obstacles placed in the path of a child’s caretaker toward ensuring their next meal.

This policy also feels damaging to me on a very personal level. I am an alcoholic and an addict. I will celebrate ten years of sobriety this March. There was a time in my life where I could have easily had three consecutively dirty drug tests, in spite of state ordered treatment. There are addicts that face jail time… the very loss of their freedom and are still unable to stop feeding their addiction. It could take more than a couple of state ordered drug classes for some people to learn how to manage their disease.

That’s why the “three strikes and you’re out” element of the legislation flies in the face of the spirit of rehabilitation and forgiveness. So what about the consequences for those that they “catch red handed”? Is denying people food the solution? People with addictions shouldn’t be treated as the dregs of society. Their addictions don’t make them any less worthy of sustenance than the Republican legislator walking the marble halls of the Kansas statehouse, on his way to his next free lunch provided by his favorite corporate lobbyist.

SB 149 is scheduled for a hearing in the Kansas Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, February 20th. You will find the committee member’s contact information HERE.  Please ask them to oppose this unnecessary legislation. It’s time to end the demonization of the needy.

News Economic Justice

GOP Governors Ask Congress to Allow Failed Drug Testing Policy for Welfare Recipients

Ally Boguhn

Tennessee in February became the latest state to see the drug testing of welfare recipients fail, after less than 1 percent of those who applied for welfare benefits tested positive for drugs in the program's first 18 months.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and ten other Republican governors signed a letter Monday urging Congress to allow drug testing to determine eligibility for food assistance—a policy that has fallen flat everywhere it’s been implemented.

Walker was joined in his call by GOP governors from Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah. The group claimed that states have the right to drug test users of social safety net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, under the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.

Though at least 15 states drug test those enrolled in or applying for public assistance programs such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, or welfare, the federal government does not allow the same for SNAP.

“Since SNAP and other welfare programs typically have job training requirements as a core element, we write today to express our sincere confidence that drug testing recipients of SNAP benefits is not only lawful, but will aid in our ability to move individuals off of this welfare program and back into the workforce as productive members of their communities,” asserted the governors’ letter. 

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Tennessee in February became the latest state to see the drug testing of TANF recipients fail, after less than 1 percent of those who applied for welfare benefits tested positive for drugs in the program’s first 18 months. Of the 7,600 welfare applicants since the implementation of North Carolina’s drug testing policy, there were 89 people required to take a drug test and 21 tested positive.

Twelve out of 466 applicants tested positive for drugs from 2012 to 2013 after Utah Republicans required testing for those receiving benefits.

Nevertheless, the two-year state budget signed by Walker in 2015 included a provision requiring drug testing for food assistance applicants. Walker preemptively sued the federal government in 2015 to allow the change, arguing that those who use food assistance “are ‘welfare recipients’ and therefore may be tested and sanctioned for the use of controlled substances.”

In a statement announcing the governors’ letter, Walker lauded legislation introduced by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) that would allow states to drug test to determine SNAP eligibility.

The Wisconsin governor and failed GOP presidential candidate claimed that such a move “makes it easier for recipients with substance abuse to move from government dependence to true independence,” and that he looks “forward to working with [Aderholt] on this crucial issue and implementing this common-sense reform in Wisconsin.”

Critics, however, say Aderholt’s measure is an attempt to further stigmatize those living in poverty.

“Why aren’t my Republican colleagues calling for drug testing for wealthy CEOs and oil company executives who receive taxpayer subsidies?” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) said in February during debate on the House floor, according to the Huffington Post. “Why is it that they always pick on poor people? It’s a lousy thing to do.”

News Law and Policy

Tennessee’s Drug Testing of Welfare Applicants Falls Flat

Teddy Wilson

Many of the states that have implemented these laws have had similar results to Tennessee, with few welfare benefit applicants testing positive for drugs.

Tennessee is the latest state to report shortcomings in its drug testing of welfare applicants, after less than 1 percent of those who applied for welfare benefits tested positive for drugs in the 18 months since the program’s inception.

Sixty-five of the 39,121 people applying for cash assistance through Families First, the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, tested positive for drugs, according to data provided by the state Department of Human Services to the Tennessean. The state spent more than $23,000 on the testing program over its first 18 months.

There have been 116 applicants who refused to take the initial drug screening questionnaire, which automatically disqualified them for benefits.

SB 2580, passed in 2012 by wide margins in Tennessee’s GOP-majority house and state senate, required the state Department of Human Services to implement a program of suspicion-based drug testing for those who applied for welfare benefits. The Republican-backed legislation mandated the department to consult with experts in identifying appropriate screening tools and assessments.

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The law was implemented on July 1, 2014.

“I thought the legislation when it passed was ridiculous,” Rep. Sherry Jones (D-Nashville) told the Tennessean. “I still think it’s ridiculous. Obviously the numbers don’t justify the cost, and in other states that have done this program their numbers don’t justify this cost either.”

Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin), who voted for the law, told the Tennessean that the law was a “good investment” and that the numbers prove it’s a success. “When you add up the 116 [who refused to go through drug screening] to the 65 people [who failed a drug test], that’s 175 or 180 people no longer receiving taxpayer-funded support for illegal activities,” Casada said.

The average benefit of the cash assistance program was $165 per month, or $1,980 per year.

There are are 13 states that have policies requiring welfare applicants to submit to drug testing or screening: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah. All of those state legislatures have Republican majorities.

Many of the states that have implemented these laws have had similar results to Tennessee, with few welfare benefit applicants testing positive for drugs.

North Carolina began drug testing welfare applicants in August, utilizing a similar screening process to the one used in Tennessee. Of the 7,600 applicants since the program’s implementation, there were 89 people required to take a drug test and 21 tested positive, reported the News & Observer.

In Kansas, there were only 20 drug tests in the program’s first four months, a far cry from the 1,852 drug tests that were estimated for that period. The $2.1 million cost of the program was to be offset by $1.1 million in savings from the estimated 1,475 people not qualified for benefits after testing positive for drugs.

In Utah, 12 applicants out of 466 tested positive for drugs in the state’s program from 2012 to 2013.

A Florida law that required drug testing of applicants for welfare benefits, even if they were not suspected of drug use, was struck down in December 2014 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The court ruled that the drug test constituted an unreasonable search because the state had not “demonstrated a more prevalent, unique or different drug problem among [TANF] applicants than in the general population.”