West Virginia has started drug testing some welfare recipients. The state Department of Health and Human Resources started last week implementing a three-year pilot program that was passed by the State Legislature last year.
Here’s how it works: When a person applies for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), they must answer a drug screening questionnaire that, if they answer honestly, will identify whether the person has abused drugs in the previous 12 months. (A person discovered to have lied on the form is automatically denied benefits).
When the answers create a reasonable suspicion of drug use, the individual is subjected to a drug test. A positive drug test sends the individual to a substance abuse treatment or counseling program and a job skills program.
A first offense does not disqualify the individual from benefits, but subsequent drug test failures trigger a suspension of benefits and ultimately permanent ineligibility for a third offense. “We want to help these people, but they have to take some personal responsibility,” said DHHR Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples. “We want to empower them to be responsible.”
Samples reports that of the 73 people who sought TANF benefits during the first week of the program, four were referred for drug tests.
Some may see the questionnaire approach as not aggressive enough. After all, the argument goes, if people are getting taxpayer funded welfare, they should be required to take a drug test. However, the courts have not seen it that way.
In 2014, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Florida’s law that mandated testing for all applicants for TANF. Judge Stanley Marcus said the law violated the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches.
“By virtue of poverty, TANF applicants are not stripped of their legitimate expectations of privacy,” the Judge wrote. States, like West Virginia, have adapted their drug testing laws by establishing that there must first be a reasonable suspicion of drug use.
West Virginia took its cue—and questionnaire—from North Carolina, where the welfare drug testing program has been in effect since 2015. The first year, case workers recommended 150 applicants be drug tested, 89 showed up and 21 tested positive. Last year, 389 were recommended for testing, 218 showed up and 42 tested positive.
At least 15 states have drug testing or screening for welfare applicants and more are trying to implement a program. The idea has been modified over the years from simply cutting off benefits for drug users to steering people into treatment programs so they can stay off drugs and improve their chances of getting a job.
“If they can’t pass a drug test, they’re not going to be able to work,” Samples told me on Talkline this week. “The best thing we can do is get folks back to work.”