Bills filed in the Florida State Legislature would require that the state drug test individuals applying for assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program who have a prior drug-related felony conviction or who are “reasonably suspected” of using illegal drugs, and subsequently deny benefits to those who fail the test. This approach is counterproductive, imposes a needless expense on the families who need these funds the most and results in both short- and long-term costs. Further, Florida’s previous drug testing requirement for applicants resulted in a net loss to the state.
Two bills filed in the Florida State Legislature, House Bill 1117 and Senate Bill 1392, would mandate drug testing for those TANF applicants who have a prior drug-related or attempted felony conviction or who the Department of Children and Families (DCF) “reasonably suspect” are engaging in illegal use of a controlled substance.
TANF is intended to bridge the gap between unemployment or underemployment and economic self-sufficiency; the program also strives to support family stability and the best interests of children. The Legislature is understandably concerned that substance abuse may interfere with the realization of these goals.
Drug testing requirements, however, may inadvertently harm children’s well-being, since parents may be unwilling or unable to apply for benefits if they are required to incur the costs of drug testing. This scenario is commonly observed in many states who have implemented this requirement.
Families who qualify for TANF earn well below the poverty line, which is $24,400 for a family of four. Although the state would reimburse the applicant for the drug test if the results were negative, families would have to pay $30 to $40 up front for the test. This cost is assessed against families who often have no disposable income. The DCF conservatively estimates that the statewide annual cost to families would be $214,000, money that could otherwise be used to support additional families who meet eligibility requirements for TANF. The department also estimates a cost to the state of up to $475,000 to access databases that identify individuals who may require testing.
This is not the first time that Florida has attempted to impose drug tests on struggling families who rely on TANF as their lifeline. The prior attempt was blocked by a federal court, citing a lack of evidence that TANF applicants would use illegal drugs. Before the 2011 law was blocked, Florida’s blanket drug testing statute for TANF applicants yielded very few positive results (2.6 percent of those tested). Only 40 Floridians were denied because they refused the drug test. Moreover, the cost of reimbursing applicants for the cost of drug testing exceeded the amount that would have been paid in TANF benefits to those who failed the test, resulting in a net loss to the state of almost $46,000.
Drug abuse is not the basis of poverty for the vast majority of Floridians. A lack of funds is the basis of poverty, and TANF is intended to provide a bridge for families between poverty and economic independence. This unnecessary requirement costs families and the state more than any indirect benefit it may derive.
The key to addressing substance abuse issues is to deal directly with the substance abuse, not to penalize the families of those with prior convictions for drug related offenses.