Caleb Stoll, of Springfield, Mo.,with Employee Screening Services, right, completes paperwork as a student waits near the specimen cups for instructions ...
Kelley McCall

Mississippi readies welfare drug tests

Conservative policymakers have created drug-testing policies for welfare recipients in several states nationwide, and as a rule, the policies have flopped rather spectacularly.
But proponents of the idea in other states just don’t seem to notice. Reid Wilson reported yesterday:
Residents who apply for temporary financial aid benefits in Mississippi will have to submit to drug testing if the state deems they are likely to be substance abusers under a new measure headed to Gov. Phil Bryant’s (R) desk.
The bill passed the state Senate on Wednesday after passing the state House earlier this year. It would require new applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to submit to a questionnaire that would evaluate the likelihood of substance abuse.
Florida, you may recall, had a similar program struck down in the courts, but that policy applied to all beneficiaries in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Mississippi is more selective – recipients will only be tested if the state thinks you might have a substance-abuse problem, depending on how you answer officials’ questionnaire.
Still, the underlying motivation for policies like these seems to be an unwarranted assumption: if you’re struggling during difficult economic times, and relying on the safety net to keep your head above water, maybe you’re abusing illegal drugs. This approach hasn’t worked well in the nine states where it’s been tried, but who knows, maybe the 10th time will be the charm.
But let’s not brush past the rather narrow definition of “welfare” being used here.
As the argument goes, if you’re receiving public support, it stands to reason the state can ask you to jump through some hoops – in this case, drug testing. But Mississippi Democrats suggested this policy be applied more broadly: if low-income TANF beneficiaries should be tested, why not business owners who receive public assistance in the form of tax breaks or corporate incentives?
Mississippi Republicans quickly dismissed the idea.
As we’ve discussed before, I understand what drives efforts like these. For many, especially on the right, it makes sense to assume those who are struggling are to blame for their plight. If you’re relying on TANF aid to help your family keep its head above water, maybe there’s something wrong with your lifestyle. Maybe the state should assume you have a drug problem.
But recent real-world evidence points in a different direction. Requiring those who are relying on the safety net to give the government their bodily fluids in exchange for benefits is not only legally dubious; it’s also ineffective and a waste of money.