Drug testing for welfare benefits produces same, slim results in Arkansas


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – About a dozen states require drug testing for certain welfare recipients.

Arkansas is one of them.

State lawmakers approved a pilot program in 2015 that targeted Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) applicants and recipients. They made the drug testing requirement permanent in 2017.

“This is a deterrent,” the bill’s sponsor, St. Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, said on the House floor during the debate in February 2017. “If you choose to use drugs, you do not get to handle those funds. That’s what we hope.”

“These funds are going to a program that by all means is ineffective,” said St. Rep. Charles Blake, D-Little Rock, as he spoke against the bill.

Two years later, there are still differing opinions but one constant: the test results.

About 19,000 Arkansans applied for TANF benefits in 2017. Thirteen were referred for drug tests. Eight refused to take the test or failed to show up. Of the five applicants tested, two were positive.

The state spent more than $32,000 to determine this, which includes the tests and employee salaries. 

“If you fill out the form and you say you’re using illegal drugs, you’re tapped,” Lundstrum explained to her colleagues in 2017. “That means that somebody else in the family can come and access the funds, and the money gets to the kids.” 

“I’d actually like to see if that’s what’s taking place,” said Bruno Showers, the senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, during an interview at his office Monday. “Because they also make the argument, ‘We’re not cutting them off. We’re helping them seek services and treatment.’ But as far as I know, no one that’s tested positive has actually gotten any substance abuse treatment due to this.”

Lundstrum and other supporters wanted the requirement to reduce the number of TANF applicants, which is happening. A recent Think Progress report found about 3,000 less Arkansans applied for TANF benefits in 2018. But of the handful who were referred for drug tests, the same number tested positive: two. The state spent almost $15,000 to determine this, about half the cost of 2017.

The requirement also produced two positive results in 2016 during the pilot program period.

While the majority of state lawmakers have agreed it’s worth it, Showers calls it a waste.

“It’s bad for low-income kids and families, but it’s also a very inefficient way of using government money,” he said. “It’s not cost-effective. That’s money that would be better spent helping those people instead of policing their behavior.”

At the end of the 2019 legislative session, St. Rep. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, filed a bill that would drug test state lawmakers. It looked similar to the TANF law, substituting “applicant or recipient” with “elected official.”

Love ultimately pulled the bill for interim study ahead of the 2021 session. 

Universal drug testing for TANF was ruled unconstitutional in 2014, but Arkansas and a dozen other states require applicants and/or recipients with a “reasonable suspicion” of drug use to be tested, including Mississippi, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Alabama. 

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