Research Shows Alabama's Drug Testing Bill Would Harm Those SNAP Is Supposed to Help

SNAP has become more vulnerable under Trump. Alabama's law could test how far the administration is willing to go to destabilize the program.
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People shop at a Food Town grocery store during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 30th, 2017, in Houston, Texas.

According to USDA data reported by AL.com, 71 percent of Alabama's SNAP participants are adults with children.

Alabama Republicans proposed restrictions to the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program last week that would disqualify people who test positive for illegal drugs. The bill, introduced in the state legislature on Tuesday, imposes drug tests on recipients with recent drug convictions, despite evidence that this popular conservative reform undercuts public-benefit programs and stigmatizes their participants.

Under the proposed law, the state's 750,000 SNAP recipients would be subject to screenings "if there is reasonable suspicion that the person uses or is under the influence of a drug," including a drug conviction from the past five years, AL.com (Alabama Media Group) reports.

As Pacific Standard has reported, requiring drug tests for public benefits does not reduce drug use. Instead, it makes federal assistance programs more expensive and less effective; research shows the requirements discourage people from applying and fail to help those with illegal drug dependences get jobs—the long-term goal of most public-assistance programs.

Matthew Gritter, political science professor at Angelo State University who specializes in social and welfare policy, has called this "the hassle factor." The additional criteria scare people away from the program, which also bears some of the cost. As Gritter explained in a Pacific Standard story last year:

One of the things that we found in states that have drug tested welfare recipients is that very few welfare recipients test positive, but it becomes very expensive to test them. So you're raising the overhead costs to the program—and SNAP traditionally has had a very low overhead and a pretty positive impact. So a lot of these reforms, coming from people that advocate small government, are actually making the program clunkier and more bureaucratic.

Instead, critics and policy experts point out that the tests' true aim is political: Conservatives who turned against public-benefits programs in recent years have demonized SNAP participants in their rhetoric. Drug testing furthers that stigma, Gritter has said, by suggesting recipients are not looking for jobs or taking "proactive steps toward self-sufficiency," as Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement about a December rule change.

Although the United States Department of Agriculture has previously sheltered SNAP from political attacks, the program may be more vulnerable under the Trump administration, which gave individual states more flexibility to reform (and restrict) SNAP in April of last year. Alabama's bill is one of the first to be introduced since those changes took effect, so, according to Gritter, "it will be an interesting test of what the Trump administration will allow states to do."

Previous administrations—and courts—have not allowed much. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 15 states have passed similar bills requiring drug tests for public-assistance applicants, but most were for a different program: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Wisconsin, Georgia, Missouri have proposed drug tests for SNAP as well, but these bills were challenged or struck down for violating federal law that prevents states from imposing new criteria for eligibility. (While states can drug-test recipients for TANF with "reasonable suspicion," policy specialists with the Congressional Research Service write that "SNAP law does not explicitly address drug testing.")

Gritter says SNAP has been spared in the past because the USDA has historically been "less ideological" than the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees TANF. Could that change? It's possible for the USDA to shift its approach—but any new restrictions would face legal challenges. As Francie Diep wrote for Pacific Standard in 2015, such challenges are "usually on the grounds that universally applied drug tests constitute unreasonable searches." When Florida imposed similar criteria on its TANF program, a judge in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the "warrantless, suspicionless urinalysis drug testing ... offends the Fourth Amendment."

Last year, then-Governor Scott Walker pushed for SNAP drug tests in Wisconsin—a move that critics said would stigmatize and restrict its use for thousands of poor residents. Gritter says Alabama's approach appears to be even more direct.

In Alabama, the consequences for testing positive escalate from a warning to making the applicant ineligible for SNAP for a year—or, after the third strike, for a lifetime. Anyone who refuses to take the test would be "permanently ineligible." The bill also specifies that, if a parent is disqualified via drug test, their children can still receive benefits, but they'd need to "designate a third party" to receive them. (Details of how this would work are still unclear; researchers have found that, when states bar former felons from receiving SNAP, the whole household's benefit amount decreases—so a family might receive less overall.)

According to USDA data reported by AL.com, 71 percent of Alabama's SNAP participants are adults with children. In 2016, a Congressional Research Service report reviewing similar reforms identified a "tension ... between the desire to use these policies as a deterrent or punishment and the desire to support the neediest families." In Alabama, the families of disqualified participants would be punished along with them.

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