U.S. Representative Stephen Fincher (R-Tennessee) introduced the Welfare Integrity Act of 2013 last week, which would require random drug testing for illegal substances for welfare applicants and recipients. Rep. Fincher stated, "currently the federal government enables drug abusers a safety-net by allowing them to participate in the TANF program," Fincher said in a statement highlighted by the Huffington Post. "Instead of having to make the hard-choice between drugs and other essential needs, abusers are able to rely on their monthly check to help them pay their bills."
Fincher is relying on the flawed and age-old notion that those living in poverty and receiving benefits through the federal program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) have a better chance to abuse drugs than those who do not receive TANF benefits. The common response from those who support this effort is, "Why should my hard earned tax dollars be used to pay for someone to use drugs". This is the driving sentiment behind what we are seeing throughout the country, a mass movement among Republicans at the state and federal level to implement welfare drug testing programs. The efforts are earmarked more toward a misperception about those living in poverty rather than actual facts. If they were about facts, then the prevailing feeling should apply to all "welfare "programs, including the programs that have aided Rep. Fincher and his family.
Representative Fincher is my age (39) but as I grew up in the inner city, Mr. Fincher grew up in rural Tennessee, in a generational farm family. The Fincher family has found great assistance from the federal government to help his family in their farming endeavors. According to several news sources, Fincher Farms, a family business run by Rep. Fincher grows cotton, corn, soybeans, and wheat on more than 2,500 acres in western Tennessee.
Over the last ten years, Fincher Farms has received $8.9 million in farm subsidies, mostly from the cotton program, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. As recently as 2009, Fincher received a $13,650 grant to help buy grain hauling and storage equipment from the state Department of Agriculture as part of the Tennessee Agricultural Enhancement Program. For standard TANF funding, a family of three receives $675 a month or $8100 a year, which is far less than Fincher received in 2009.
Ok, so he received government assistance as a farmer, which is different than someone who lives in an urban area receiving government assistance. He is probably not using it for drugs because he lives in a farming community and drug use is usually reserved to urban centers. That would also be a wrong assumption as those living in rural communities are more likely to be involved in drug abuse than those who live in urban communities. According to a report by Karen Van Gundy out of the University of New Hampshire, entitled Substance Abuse in Rural and Small Town America, those in rural areas are more likely to use drugs than those living in urban communities. Gundy states, "rural and urban places today have similar rates of substance use and abuse, and, for abuse of some substances, rural Americans are at an even higher risk than their urban counterparts."
Ok, so if we agree that those receiving welfare benefits should be tested and that the likelihood that drug use is more concentrated in rural communities than in urban communities, than it would be a safer bet to test Congressman Fincher than it would to test a welfare recipient in an urban community. If so, Rep. Fincher should grab a pee cup now. Unfortunately this argument is not about the smart drug testing policy, it is more about demonizing and targeting the poor.
As we saw in the results from Florida's drug testing policy, it yielded no significant results outlining drug use among welfare recipients. Entitled the Demonstration Project by the State of Florida, Governor Rick Scott looked at the usage of substance abuse by welfare recipients in the state. Over an eighteen-month period, the researchers on the Demonstration Project used a written test to screen over 8,700 TANF applicants for reasonable cause to believe they were substance abusers. Of those screened, 1447 applicants were identified as potential substance abusers and required to undergo urinalysis. Only 5.1% (353 individuals) of the total screened population tested positive. The researchers noted that this rate of drug use was lower than had been reported in other national studies of welfare recipients.
Ten years earlier, Florida conducted the same tests to the same results. According to PolitiFact, in 1998 the Florida Legislature "approved a drug-testing pilot project for people receiving temporary cash assistance. But the results were underwhelming. Of the 8,797 applicants screened for drugs, only 335 (3.8 percent) showed evidence of having a controlled substance in their systems and failed the test, the Orlando Sentinel reported. The pilot project cost the state $2.7 million dollars.
Having both grown up in poverty, engaged in the work of helping those living in poverty and now teaching social policy at the university level, I know that many actions related to the poor are often driven by misinformation. What is different about the approaches of Gov. Scott and Rep. Fincher is that it is not misinformation that guides them because the data is in front of them. What guides these approaches is a mistrust of those living in poverty and then devising terrible policy strategies to further marginalize and demonize the poor. As a Mother Jones article by Claudia Jeffery stated in 2006 that "since 2000, the number of Americans living below the poverty line at any one time has steadily risen. Now 13% of all Americans--37 million--are officially poor." With these numbers, elected officials like Rep. Fincher will have their hands full in finding ways to alienate this growing segment of American society.