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Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

Drug testing for being poor

It’s back, and it’s as bad an idea as it ever was.

For years, GOP lawmakers have tried to make drug testing mandatory for some Texans who receive state welfare benefits, with little success.

But after making some headway in the Texas Senate in the 2013 legislative session, they hope to pick up where they left off — pushing bills they say keep taxpayer dollars from supporting people who abuse drugs.

Two bills filed by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, would subject people seeking cash assistance from the state’s welfare program — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — to drug tests if their responses to a screening questionnaire suggested drug use.

The measures are sure to face opposition from some Democrats, backed by advocacy groups who say such drug testing might be unconstitutional.


Nelson said she’s confident the welfare drug-testing bill will pass this time around given the unanimous vote it received in the Senate and the “great deal of support” it picked up in the House.

“Taxpayer dollars should not be used to support a person’s drug habit,” Nelson said in a statement. “We need to ensure this program is putting individuals on a true path to self-sufficiency, and drugs are a barrier to independence.”

But opponents of the bill argue that there’s little evidence to prove that recipients of welfare use their cash assistance to purchase drugs, and that drug testing will do little to help families already in need. If a parent tests positive for drugs, the state would be required to report that individual to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

“Our concerns are that the legislation doesn’t so much address the issue as punish families that are already going through a crisis of their own,” said Will Francis, director of government relations for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

See here for some background; the bills in question are SB54 and HB352. I’ll believe this is something other than an expression of official contempt for poor folks when someone proposes drug testing for the recipients of various incentive programs and the beneficiaries of the business tax cuts Greg Abbott is insisting on. I mean, fair is fair, and they’ll be getting a lot more dough than the TANF recipients will. Only-half-joking snark aside, drug testing for welfare recipients has no real policy justification for it. Harold Pollack explains.

What’s particularly strange about the drug-testing campaign is that if you’re trying to find people with substance-use disorders, your local sports bar, community college, or hospital ER would provide a more target-rich environment. Given the high rates of injury among intoxicated young adults, such efforts would arguably be a wiser use of public funds. Other measures such as increased alcohol taxes would also be valuable.

The drug testing of SNAP recipients is yet another ideological sideshow that disfigures substance-abuse policy. It falsely implies that substance use disorders are a widespread cause of welfare dependence. It also implies, again falsely, that these disorders are highly concentrated among recipients of public aid.

Using 2011 data from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), we looked at the behaviors and circumstances of adults ages 18-64 whose households received SNAP.[i]. We examined whether respondents had used some illicit substance during the previous month or year. We then looked at whether they met screening criteria for abuse or dependence on alcohol or illicit drugs. These are the people who would be referred for treatment by mandatory drug testing.

The basic pattern is shown in Figure 1, which compares SNAP recipients ages 18-64 (the blue bars) with non-recipients (red bars) on various measures of substance use and actual use disorders. The green bars then show the additional risk associated with SNAP receipt, adjusting for gender, age, education, race/ethnicity, marital status, and the number of minor children in the home.[ii] Because SNAP recipients are poorer, less-educated, and younger than non-recipients, the adjusted risk associated with SNAP receipt is noticeably smaller than the unadjusted differences on virtually every measure.

Sure enough, SNAP recipients are somewhat more likely than others to use or misuse illicit substances. About 24 percent of SNAP recipients and 16 percent of those who don’t get SNAP have used at least one illicit substance in the past year. This drops to 13.1 percent for SNAP recipients and 7.5 percent for non-recipients if one excludes marijuana.

Note, however, that the actual prevalence of illicit substance use disorders remains quite low—only about 5.3 percent among SNAP recipients who are only about 1.7 percentage-points more likely to have such disorders than comparable non-recipients.

And if one excludes marijuana, then abuse or dependence of other illicit substances is rare within the SNAP population. By far the most common substance use disorders among SNAP recipients (and among the general population) arise from alcohol use—behaviors generally left undetected by drug-testing.

On every measure we examine, SNAP recipients are only slightly more likely than non-recipients to display substance use disorders. Yet the absolute risks associated with SNAP receipt are quite small. And some obvious socio-demographic subgroups display much higher prevalence of substance use disorders than SNAP recipients do.

I strongly suspect the reason for these bills, beyond the contempt being expressed, is the belief/hope that some number of folks who would qualify for this benefit will not bother to apply out of fear or shame, and that this will save a few bucks. I bet we’d save even more under my drug testing proposal.

It’s drug testing all the way down

Looks like the urinalysis industry in this state is going to get a big stimulus package next year, at least if the Republicans get their way.

As top state leaders push to drug-test some Texans seeking jobless benefits and financial assistance, critics suggest the initiative would single out the powerless and hurt their children.

It’s a battle that has been played out in other states – most prominently in Florida, where a drug-testing program for welfare applicants was stalled by a constitutional challenge saying it amounted to an unreasonable search.

Backers of Texas’ proposal cite its narrow scope, since a leading bill targeting welfare recipients would limit testing to applicants deemed high-risk for drug use. Those who failed the test and lost benefits could reapply in a year or, if they underwent drug treatment, six months.

“The reality is, no one wants to see any Texan using drugs,” said state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. But he’s a critic of the proposal, contending the poor and jobless are being singled out “because of politics, and not because of reasonable, rational policy.”

“Whether you are receiving governmental assistance on welfare, whether you are a student receiving a Texas grant, whether you are an executive, a CEO, that’s up here asking for money from the Enterprise Fund – I don’t want to see anybody using drugs inappropriately. Now the question for me is why are we singling out this population?” he asked.

I think we all know the answer to that question. This is a no-brainer for Rick Perry et al – it plays well to the cheap seats, it sounds like something that would save money, and who’s going to stand against them on behalf of drug users? You can’t ask for much more than that.

Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director for the National Employment Law Project, said federal legislation allows testing only for claimants terminated from their most recent employment due to unlawful use of controlled substances, or those for whom suitable work is only available in an occupation that regularly drug tests.

The U.S. Department of Labor is developing regulations to allow states to implement these provisions. It appears the first would be a tough one in Texas, which restricts benefits to those who have lost a job through no fault of their own.

Andy Hogue, spokesman for Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken, who supports such drug testing, said it’s estimated the cost of testing for jobless applications would be about $12.1 million over five years. He said it’s projected the stricter requirements would save the Unemployment Insurance program in Texas $20.7 million in that period.

I seriously doubt we’ll see the kind of savings that Andy Hogue projects. I admit I have no evidence to back up this assertion, I just have no reason to trust such a self-serving projection. If this gets passed by the Lege and doesn’t get blocked by the courts, I’ll be very interested to see how that projection pans out. Bear in mind, of course, that four million bucks a year is chump change in an $80 billion budget – it’s not much more than Rick Perry spends on travel and security. Again, it’s all about priorities being out of whack.

On peeing in a cup

Another solution in search of a problem from the Republican leadership.

Out of the more than 250 bills filed Monday, the first possible day to file legislation for the 83rd session, one measure — concerning drug testing for welfare applicants — is already drawing the support of the state’s top lawmakers and the criticism of civil liberties advocates.

Senate Bill 11 would require applicants to the Texas Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to undergo a drug test. If applicants fail the test, they would not be eligible to apply again for a full year, unless they attended a substance abuse treatment program. The bill was written by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and several other Republican lawmakers.

“This will help prevent tax dollars from going into the pockets of drug abusers,” Gov. Rick Perry said Tuesday at a news conference. He said that the goal of the bill is to “empower every Texan to reach their potential,” because “being on drugs makes it harder to begin the journey to independence.”

“It is a legitimate function of government to help people that are not able to help themselves,” added Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. He said that because “virtually every” business he has encountered uses random drug testing on employees, it’s a good idea for the state and will lead to reduced unemployment by proving to employers that the people they are hiring have been certified by the state as drug-free.

“We owe it to all Texans to structure our welfare and unemployment programs in a way that guarantees that recipients are serious about getting back to work,” he said.

“This is not all about punishment,” Perry added. “This is also an incentive to get people off of these drugs.”

But critics of the bill say the bill is needlessly punitive and will mainly harm innocent children, whose parents are found to have even a minor amount of drugs. “The purpose of TANF was really to help children,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas. “If you don’t give the moms the money, then the children lose out.”

She pointed specifically to the bill’s provision that would require the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to report applicants with drug abuse problems to Child Protective Services. “Now we’re going to take the child of a parent who has smoked a couple of joints and give them to CPS,” she said. “If there’s a genuine concern about drug abuse, let’s do something about it. There’s no evidence that poor people abuse drugs more than other folks, but we keep coming up with bills that target poor people.”

“Adding insult to injury,” Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a press release, “is that Perry would pay for the drug testing out of the very TANF funds that should go to provide assistance to people. In other words, he’s taking about $350,000 worth food and assistance from all families from the general TANF grant just to try to find a few violators. This is simply callous and perverse.”

I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said by Lisa Falkenberg, Burka, Jason Stanford, BOR, Stace, or EoW. I’m particularly fond of Rep. Joe Deshotel’s response, noted in that BOR post, which was a call to add a drug test requirement to the application to run for state office in Texas. Lord knows, for the amount we spend on Rick Perry’s travel detail, we ought to get some assurance he’s not taking the opportunity to toke up while out on the road.

All other concerns aside, the bottom line is that this has been done in other states, most notably Florida, and there were no savings to be had and very few users getting caught. Burka astutely noted the parallel to the failed program of steroid testing for high school athletes, another expensive way for the state to (if you’ll pardon the expression) piss its money away chasing something that wasn’t there in the first place. For a gang that likes to rhapsodize about getting government out of people’s lives, they sure sing a different tune when it comes to the lives of people they don’t like.

Them that has, gets

This is how it works in this state.

Some of Texas’ most vulnerable residents – the very poor, the mentally ill, those suffering from birth defects, and children from troubled families – would lose state support and services under several new budget-cutting proposals.

In one of the deepest proposed cuts, made public Tuesday by the Health and Human Services Commission, monthly welfare payments to extremely poor households with children would be cut about 20 percent, to an average of about $57 per person a month. In two-parent families, payments per person would be slashed by half, to about $33.

Earlier, agencies overseen by the commission proposed other deep cuts, such as reducing by 6,000 the number of mentally ill people in North Texas who receive treatment from the region’s mental health system; closing 26 beds for psychiatric patients at the Terrell State Hospital; and eliminating 40 percent of the slots in a program that provides medical services for children with conditions such as epilepsy and cerebral palsy , and to people of any age who have cystic fibrosis.

So, to sum up: We cannot ask people who own million dollar homes to pay a few more bucks in property taxes because, well, we just can’t. It’s not on the table, so don’t ask. People who have nothing, on the other hand, are just gonna have to tighten their belts and get by with less. Any questions?

The sidebar to this Chron story about the different budget-balancing approaches of Rick Perry and Bill White goes into some more detail.

The Texas Grants college financial aid program would be slashed, dropping the number of students getting grants by 23,745.

Child-abuse prevention and early intervention would be cut, dropping 14,000 youths from abuse, neglect and juvenile delinquency prevention programs.

Beds would be cut at five state hospitals, including San Antonio State Hospital. This means 1,400 fewer Texans with mental illness would be served at the five hospitals each year.

Community mental health services would be cut, so nearly 10,000 fewer adults and nearly 2,400 fewer children would get services each year.

Immunizations would be reduced, leaving an estimated 56,000 children without state-paid vaccinations.

The Department of State Health Services’ children’s preventive dental services would be eliminated, leaving 9,000 children without care from the program.

The South Texas Health Care System in Harlingen would get funding cuts that would mean 49,000 fewer prescriptions would be offered and 6,000 fewer procedures performed.

If these sound like good ideas to you, ideas that will actually save money in the long run, then you should be voting for Rick Perry. If you think that maybe, just maybe, it’s a better idea to find enough funds to prevent some or all of these cuts from being made, then you should be voting for Bill White. The choice is clear.