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.”

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