By Teresa Welsh |
We don't want parents on welfare using their money for drugs. Although drug abuse by anyone can endanger life and livelihoods, drug abuse by mothers and fathers may endanger their children. Who is caring for the kids when adults are under the influence?
But drug testing for everyone who receives aid through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, program is not the answer. TANF is the centerpiece of the welfare reforms of 1996 that replaced the former Aid to Families with Dependent Children. One of the key changes to the program was the requirement that those receiving aid move into jobs or "workfare" programs. Recipients must work as soon as they are job-ready, or no later than two years after coming on assistance. That means that states are moving aid recipients into jobs and kicking people off the rolls regardless. The number of family aid recipients has dropped from over 12 million in 1996 to less than 4.5 million in 2010—and this despite a 3 percent rise in the unemployment rate. The program is a far cry from the welfare stereotypes of the 1980s.
Since TANF is temporary assistance for families in financial trouble, there is no particular reason to suspect them of drug use or target them for drug testing. Florida's recent foray into drug testing for its welfare recipients netted only a 2 percent positive rate. National surveys place the rate of illegal drug use at 6 to 8 percent of respondents. Lawmakers have not established that TANF recipients—with low incomes and a strong need for employment—are more likely to have drug problems than others who receive government benefits.
What about the children? Parental drug use may be dangerous to their families. But drug testing for TANF benefits won't protect public safety. The Supreme Court has upheld drug testing of railway engineers and U.S. Customs agents because of the dangers of drug use in those particular jobs. The testing in those cases was designed to keep drug users out of positions where they could harm the public. A positive TANF test would only mean that the user doesn't get financial assistance. How does that help their children? Child welfare agencies are charged with protecting kids from abuse and neglect; they have the tools to step in when drug use threatens a child's safety. TANF drug testing will only deprive needy families of money.
Workfare recipients have only committed the crime of poverty. There is no reason to suspect them of drug use simply for needing assistance, and no reason to penalize the children for their parents' sins.
About Matthew Bodie Professor and Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at Saint Louis University School of Law
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