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Scott Walker Looks to ‘Stigmatize’ Wisconsin Families Receiving Food Assistance

Erin Heger

“These policies are based on an idea that drug use is prevalent among welfare recipients, and that harmful stereotype is simply not true."

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is the latest state-level executive to push for drug testing of food assistance recipients, despite similar policies having proved costly and ineffective in other states.

Walker announced last week his intention to move forward with drug testing people applying for food stamps, an effort previously blocked by the federal government. Fourteen other states, including Kansas, Tennessee, and Arkansas, have adopted similar regulations—making drug testing an eligibility condition for those seeking Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a program that provides cash assistance to families with low incomes. Few applicants have tested positive for drugs in states that have criminalized families that receive food assistance. In Tennessee, from July 2014 to February 2016, the state administered 609 tests out of 28,559 applicants and 55 tested positive.

The states that have implemented this have found quite low rates of positive tests, and in fact if you look at Wisconsin’s proposal, their own estimates are that a tiny fraction of applicants would test positive,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of the income and work supports team at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing policy solutions for people with low incomes. 

Wisconsin would be the first state to require drug testing for those applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That’s because under the federal TANF grant, states have a great deal of flexibility to set eligibility rules, though SNAP regulations do not permit states to create additional eligibility conditions. Wisconsin’s Republican-majority legislature approved the policy in 2015. Walker then filed a lawsuit seeking approval to drug test SNAP applicants, but it was rejected by President Obama’s administration and dismissed by a court. Walker then appealed to President-elect Donald Trump’s administration in December 2016, but the Trump Administration has not taken action.

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The Florida GOP’s 2011 law requiring drug testing of all TANF applicants was struck down in court, and while Georgia Republicans passed a similar law in 2012, the state legislature amended it in 2014 to include reasonable suspicion before requiring a drug test. In most states with drug testing policies, applicants undergo a drug test only if there is reasonable suspicion that they are engaging in drug activity.  

“Suspicion-less testing has quite consistently been rejected as a violation of the constitutional protections against search and seizure,” Lower-Basch said.  

Kansas officials enacted a drug-testing policy in 2014 as an eligibility condition for TANF. The state estimated the cost to be $40,000 for the first four months of the program. Within the first 18 months, 14 out of 7,267 closed TANF cases were from people either denying or failing the drug test, said Scott Anglemyer, executive director of the Kansas Association of Community Action Programs, the membership organization for the eight community action agencies in Kansas working to combat poverty.

“Consistent with almost every other state that has done this, there are very few people who end up being sanctioned because they failed drug tests,” Anglemyer said.

Under Kansas law, if an applicant fails the first drug test, they must complete drug treatment and job training to become eligible for benefits again. A second failed drug test will result in a loss of benefits for one year, and a third failed test will result in termination of assistance.

Lower-Basch says drug-testing recipients is not an effective way to confront addiction, citing that chemical tests do not test for abuse. The tests may catch occasional users of marijuana, but miss abusers of alcohol or opioids.

“If you take substance abuse seriously, you have to take it seriously as a health problem,” she said. “The reality is that even in really good treatments, people relapse, people don’t have linear paths to recovery. This policy just doesn’t reflect what we actually know about substance abuse treatment.”

Although few applicants have lost food assistance due to drug use, Anglemyer said the bigger effect of the drug testing program in Kansas is how the GOP policy has further stigmatized public assistance programs, resulting in fewer applicants.

“These policies are based on an idea that drug use is prevalent among welfare recipients, and that harmful stereotype is simply not true,” Anglemyer said, “It drives people, whether or not they are using drugs, away from a safety net and into deeper poverty.”

Given the restrictions on TANF, including time limits that cut off families after a certain number of months, the program contributes little to the overall economy, Lower-Basch said. However, the SNAP program plays a larger role, especially given the shift in the workforce over the past several decades to more low-wage jobs.

“Fifty years ago the people who needed food stamps were mostly people who weren’t working,” Lower-Basch said, “But now the program overwhelmingly serves people in working families because their jobs don’t pay enough to support themselves and their families.”

SNAP supplements the incomes of low-wage workers, allowing them to purchase healthy foods and thus puts money back into the local economy, Lower-Basch said. Increasing SNAP benefits was was one of the most effective parts of stimulus efforts, according to economists who studied the 2008 recession. Two-thirds of households that receive food assistance include children, and according to the Northwestern University Institute for Policy Research, receiving SNAP as a child has lifelong benefits in improving health, better education, and employment outcomes.

Despite the long-term benefits for people who receive SNAP, and evidence that drug testing is costly and virtually unnecessary, many conservative lawmakers, including Walker, continue to push the policy as part of an economic austerity agenda. 

“This is a solution in search of a problem,” Lower-Basch said. “It both wastes resources and stigmatizes people who need assistance.”

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