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America's Poorest State to Spend Money Drug Testing Its Poorest Residents

Even though drug testing welfare recipients has proven costly and ineffective, GOP legislators continue being fired up about it.
 
 
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GOP lawmakers are persevering in their efforts to drug test welfare and food stamp recipients, despite overwhelming evidence that drug testing programs are far better at wasting money than at catching drug users. Arizona turned up one positive drug test out of 87,000 people the state screened. Utah caught a whole 12 people. 

In Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott boldly took on the 4th amendment by forcing 4,086 TANF applicants to pee in cups, less than 3 percent tested positive before the court shut it down. Originally touted as a cost-saving measure, the program ended up losing the state money when applicants who tested negative were reimbursed for the cost of their tests. 

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has especially been fired up about drug screening welfare applicants, promoting the legislation in his State of the Union address. Now Bryant will have his chance to subject the poorest people in the country's poorest state to drug tests, before they can get access to far-below-national-average welfare benefits ($140 per month on average for a single parent with two children.) Last week, the Mississippi State Senate passed a bill that would screen all new welfare applicants using a questionnaire designed to gauge the likelihood that they use drugs. 

If they fail the screening, they have to enter a drug rehabilitation program. If they fail their drug test a second time, they're banned from the program for 90 days. A third fail blocks them access to the program for a year. Amendments introduced by Mississippi Democratic legislators to the bill would have required drug tests for other beneficiaries of government money including students, businesses, and state lawmakers. Unsurprisingly, they  did not make it into the bill. Funding for the program, estimated to cost 36K and $291,000 — based on how many fail the initial screening --  will come out of TANF funds. 

In a statement, Gov. Bryant claimed the program would help addicts and their families.

“The TANF program is a safety net for families in need, and adding this screening process will aid adults who are trapped in a dependency lifestyle so they can better provide for their children,” Gov. Phil Bryant said. “This measure will help make a positive difference for families impacted by substance abuse.”

But poverty advocates have other theories about the intent of the legislation."When state leaders don't like a policy, they figure out how to make it not work," Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald of Children's Defense Fund tells AlterNet. In fact, Mississippi places such severe restrictions on aid that only 9,563 families currently participate in TANF, according to state numbers cited by the AP.  That's not a lot in a state with a 24.2 percent poverty rate, the highest in the nation, and where 1 in 3 kids is poor.

"We have a very high percentage of families who don't know where their food is going to come from," Warren Yoder, Executive Director of the Public Policy Center of Mississippi, tells AlterNet. "Almost all of them will have to cut back on nutrition. One fourth have to cut back so hard that someone in the family goes hungry for at least one meal. First it's the adults, then the teenagers, then the littlest kids go without food."

"They've driven most people off welfare" says Garrett Fitzgerald. "And then to add insult to injury, the few people left we're drug testing?"

The ACLU's  Jennifer Riley-Collins points out that the poor are no more likely to use drugs than anyone else, a view supported by numerous studies. "The small amounts of public assistance that go to basic needs for shelter for families comes from TANF, and we are subjecting the most vulnerable to a false assumption that they're drug users. It's unfair and untrue."

Tana Ganeva is AlterNet's managing editor. Follow her on Twitter or email her at tana@alternet.org.
 
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