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Trump Administration Wants to Limit Access to Food for Low-Income Families

Teddy Wilson

States that have implemented drug testing for public assistance applicants have found very few welfare beneficiaries testing positive for drugs.

The Trump administration is reportedly considering allowing states to force food stamp recipients to submit to drug testing, despite overwhelming evidence that the policy, based on stereotypes about people with low incomes, is ineffective and expensive. 

The proposal would apply to “roughly 5 percent of participants” in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, reported the Associated Press (AP). The proposal is the latest move by the Trump administration to allow states more latitude to restrict access to public assistance, according to administration emails obtained by the AP. 

President Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order directing federal agencies to review federal public assistance programs and strengthen work requirements—which advocates say are unnecessary, burdensome, and stigmatizing.

Republicans on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee on Thursday released a draft of the farm bill, which included stricter work requirements for SNAP recipients. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the requirements would reduce the number of SNAP recipients by as much as 1 million people over the next ten years, reported the Washington Post

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Matt Knott, president of Feeding America, said in a statement that increasing requirements for people to access food stamps would be counterproductive.

“The logic behind increasing SNAP employment requirements is backwards; it starts from a premise that people aren’t working to begin with and that’s not the case,” Knott said. “These cuts would increase the need for food assistance nationwide, and the non-profit sector simply can’t fill the gap— for every meal provided by the Feeding America network, SNAP provides twelve.”

GOP governors have long asked the federal government to allow state officials to restrict access to public assistance programs. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) was joined by ten other GOP governors in a 2016 letter that requested congressional lawmakers permit states to implement drug testing of applicants for food assistance. The Walker administration has pushed forward with a plan to implement a drug testing program for applicants for food assistance, despite a federal judge dismissing a lawsuit that sought to implement the program.

Tennessee Republicans in 2014 implemented a policy of drug testing welfare applicants, and less than 1 percent of those who applied for welfare benefits tested positive for drugs in the first 18 months of the program. In Utah, where legislators instituted a drug testing program for public assistance applicants, 12 applicants out of 466 tested positive for drugs from 2012 to 2013.

Many states that have implemented these laws have had similar results to Tennessee, with few welfare benefit applicants testing positive for drugs. Drug testing policies of public assistance applicants in Florida, Kansas, North Carolina, and Utah have all resulted in expensive programs with few people testing positive.

Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, told the Associated Press that requiring those with low incomes to pass drug tests before accessing public assistance will have consequences for marginalized populations.

“Are people losing their food assistance if they don’t take the test, and in that case, is that a condition of eligibility, which the states aren’t allowed to impose?” Bolen said. “And does drug testing fall into what’s allowable under a state training and employment program, which typically lists things like job search or education or on-the-job experience? This is kind of a different bucket.”

Legislators in at least 15 states have passed legislation that requires screening or drug testing applicants for public assistance applicants: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. All of those state legislatures have Republican legislative majorities.

This year legislation to implement similar programs has been introduced in states such as Illinois, Nebraska, New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

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