To Eat or Not to Eat: Should Legislation Decide?

October 25, 2019 WV Staff

In 2018, West Virginia spent $15,395 in taxpayer dollars drug testing applicants for TANF, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant. Of the 3,799 individuals who applied for these benefits, just 69 tested positive, 1.8% of those who applied.

Now, some states are pushing for legislation that will require drug testing for recipients of SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) which provided nutritious food to over 300,000 West Virginians last year alone. With such clear evidence that drug testing welfare recipients is costly and ineffective, why do states continue to push for such policies?

Legislation that requires drug testing for these benefits directly limits access to food, increasing the 11% of US households that already report being food insecure.

When Florida attempted to enact SNAP drug testing requirements in 2014, it was determined that this law violated the Fourth Amendment as it requires the “unreasonable search of applications” with not enough evidence indicating a significant drug problem compared to the general population. In fact, several studies on addiction and substance use indicate low illicit drug use for welfare recipients.

Drug testing policies shame law-abiding citizens simply because they live in poverty. For those who do receive a positive drug test for illicit drugs, punitive measures such as revoking food access have been proven to be far less successful than offering treatment services.

Additionally, until this year, West Virginia was one of three states that still implemented a lifetime ban on SNAP benefits for individuals with felony drug convictions. With the highest rate of opioid use and abuse in the nation, this policy severely inhibited food security within our state. This ban plainly attacked victims of substance use disorder, individuals who are in need of treatment, not stigmatizing policies.

Drug testing applicants for SNAP benefits has been found unconstitutional time and time again, yet states continue to push for legislation that proposes it. As a state, we should avoid stigmatizing bans, unnecessary and costly programs, and time-consuming initiatives that limit access to civil rights such as food security. With the 2020 Legislative Session coming soon, it’s more important than ever to keep watch over the bills and policies our representatives attempt to enact.

West Virginians don’t need costly programs that achieve little. Instead, we need policies that address our high rates in poverty, low rates in higher education, and spikes in unemployment and illicit drug use. Placing additional restrictions on who can eat within our state limits access to those who need it, punishing drug abusers, instead of giving them the treatment they need.

Author: Karissa Bjorkgren, MPA/MSW Candidate, West Virginia University