Drug Testing TANF Recipients Costs More than It Saves

Rachel Cooper

In the last few months state legislatures across the country have introduced bills designed to force people in greatest need to prove they are “worthy” of receiving support. Sadly, Texas is no different.

The House Human Services Committee is set to hear several bills, including HB 352 by Representative Ken King, requiring drug screening for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients. Based on their answers to the screening, the applicant may be required to pass a drug test or have their TANF benefits denied.

Texas families with children who are eligible for TANF are among the poorest (e.g., a family of three with income less than $188 per month), and the funds they receive each month go to the very basic necessities: toiletries, bus passes, utility bills, and diapers. The average family receives about $175 in TANF benefits.

Drug Testing TANF applicants is not only unnecessary, it is costly to the state and diverts limited funds from supporting some of the state’s poorest children.

Other states have experimented with drug screening and testing TANF recipients and found it to be a costly failure. For example;

  • Utah screened 4,786 TANF applicants or recipients and tested 454 individuals identified through screening; of these, 17 individuals tested positive — one-third of 1 percent of those screened.
  • Missouri screened nearly 70,000 applicants and identified 1,646 for testing. Of those who were tested, only 69 tested positive, representing less than one-tenth of 1 percent of those screened.
  • Tennessee screened 16,017 applicants and administered 279 drug tests. Just 37 individuals tested positive for illegal drug use, representing just 0.2 percent of all applicants.

Drug screenings and tests are also expensive, compared to the money they may potentially save. For example, Utah spent $60,000 on drug testing to deny benefits to 29 people in a two-year period, costing the state over $2,000 for each positive test.

$2000 would cover two years of benefits for a child in Texas.

With tax cuts looming and lawmakers failing to make needed investments in education, health care, roads and other programs and services, Texas can’t afford a costly program with very limited benefits.

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