Wisconsin Begins Drug Testing Applicants For Food Stamps And Unemployment Benefits Today


food stamps drug testing

On Monday, many Wisconsin residents who apply for food stamps, unemployment benefits, jobs training, or benefits and training from a handful of other state programs will have to be screened and potentially tested for drug use.

Applicants will have to fill out a questionnaire about drug use, and depending on their answers, may have to submit to an actual test. Those who test positive will be referred to a state-funded treatment program.

Gov. Scott Walker (R) paved the way for the drug testing when he signed a budget in July that included a provision requiring it. But the drug testing program is likely to face significant challenges. Seven states currently screen and drug test applicants to their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs, or welfare, because they have wide leeway over how they design and run those programs. The rules for food stamps, on the other hand, are set by the federal government. When other states have tried to drug test applicants for food stamps, the federal government has blocked them.

To try to get around this issue, Walker’s administration has sued the government, arguing that people on food stamps “are ‘welfare recipients’” and therefore fall under the states’ purview to run welfare programs.

Another issue could crop up in the way the state screens the applicants. When Walker approved the budget with the drug testing requirement, he removed a provision that would have limited the tests to only those with “reasonable suspicion” of drug use. He said at the time that the administration shouldn’t be limited in who it wants to screen. Without some burden of proving suspicion first, however, the state could run into the constitutional issues that led to the end of Florida’s welfare drug testing law, which blanket tested all applicants.

In explaining the rationale for drug testing applicants, Walker has said, “Employers across the state frequently tell me they have good-paying jobs available in high-demand fields, but need their workers to be drug-free. These important entitlement reforms will help more people find family-supporting jobs, moving them from government dependence to true independence.”

But there is little evidence that these testing regimes turn up widespread drug abuse. In the states that drug test for welfare, all but one have a positive test rate of below 1 percent, while one has a rate of 8.3 percent. The same is looking to be true for newer programs that just started. By contrast, the general public has an illegal drug use rate of 10.2 percent. Yet they are still spending more than $1 million to administer the tests, money that could instead be used to offer more assistance to the people who need it.

A number of states have been working recently on other ways to restrict benefits for the poor. Kansas lawmakers considered limiting cash withdrawals at ATMs to just $25 a day and blocking their use at a number of places such as pools and cruises, although it eventually reversed course on the ATM limit. Others have looked at and implemented harsh lifetime limits that kick people off the rolls after a certain time period no matter whether they can find a job or not. Still others have been debating restricting what groceries can be bought with food stamps, despite there being no clear rules around what constitutes healthy and unhealthy food.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress