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Drug-Testing and TANF

- June 6, 2011

This is a guest post from Robert Griffin, a Ph.D. student in political science here at GW.


On May 31st, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed into law a bill that requires welfare recipients in Florida to undergo drug testing prior to enrolling in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Although drug testing for this program is allowed under federal law and most states have provisions for testing those suspected of substance abuse, this bill makes Florida the only state that requires all recipients to be tested.

Setting aside debates over the constitutionality, cost effectiveness, efficacy or necessity of a “blanket” testing policy, what I’ve yet to see discussed are the larger social and political consequences of such a bill. Namely, what happens to a population when you subject it to relatively invasive testing for welfare benefits?

Bruch, Ferree, and Soss (gated, ungated) argue that services such as TANF are an important means by which many Americans interact with and form opinions about government. In particular, experiences in dealing with welfare programs can shape our ideas about the efficacy of participation and the general responsiveness of government. Their findings suggest that interactions with means tested welfare programs that are more paternalistic – “hierarchical designs that emphasize direction, supervision, and penalty” – suppress participation. From their paper:

bq. In TANF programs that structure authority relations in a more strongly paternalist manner, program experiences are associated with significant decreases in the odds of all forms of civic and political engagement. By contrast, experiences with less paternalist TANF programs produce no discernible effects on the outcomes analyzed here.

Although their piece doesn’t assess drug testing in particular, it would seem likely that such a policy would make Florida’s TANF program more rather than less paternalistic.

This is not to say that Governor Scott’s bill is necessarily bad legislation. Public policy often involves tradeoffs and I’m certainly in no position to argue for or against the value of such a policy on the basis of its overall desirability. However, it is deeply disappointing that this legislation was seemingly passed without seriously considering the consequences of potentially demobilizing a population already predisposed to low levels of civic and political participation.