By ACLU of Mississippi Board Member, Laura Martin

Mississippi lawmakers are considering several bills that propose drug testing for some of the poorest Mississippians. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, is a program that provides income support to very low-income families with children, and requires that caregivers meet certain work requirements. The TANF application process is quite rigorous, and the modest payments help families to provide for their children.

Drug testing poses unnecessary costs and an administrative burden on the state. Adding drug testing to the TANF program will trigger new costs, both to pay for the tests and to manage the program. Given these administrative considerations, this policy is unlikely to pay for itself through any cost savings.

Similar laws in other states have suggested that rates of drug abuse are lower among TANF recipients than in the general population. In Florida, approximately 2.5% of TANF applicants tested positive for drug use, compared with an estimated rate of drug use of 6 percent across the nation. There is no reason to believe that outcomes in Mississippi would be any different. In fact, House Public Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Sam Mims indicated that he did not have any evidence that TANF recipients abuse illegal drugs at a higher rate than the general population.

Investing in drug courts is a more effective approach to address drug abuse. Recent budget cuts reduced funding for Mississippi’s drug courts by over $3 million. Drug courts are successful in saving money and reducing recidivism because they combine intense supervision and treatment services with reduced sentences. This proven model would do more to impact drug abuse in Mississippi than targeting TANF recipients for drug testing.

These proposals are likely to result in costly litigation. The Florida law that required mandatory drug testing for TANF recipients was found to infringe on basic privacy rights. The court ruling in Lebron v. Secretary, Florida Department of Children and Family Services stated that “the simple fact of seeking public assistance does not deprive a TANF applicant of the same constitutional protection from unreasonable searches that all other citizens enjoy.”

Mississippi should learn from these failed policy proposals and redirect its efforts to other proven, cost-effective programs that benefit low-income children and address substance abuse.

If you'd like to stand with the ACLU of Mississippi against these bills, you can take action here.