The uncompassionate, unconstitutional conservatives of the South Dakota Legislature just keep trying to kick the poor in the teeth. A week after seeing the DiSanto-Olson welfare drug-testing bill killed in House Health and Human Services, two of that failure’s co-sponsors have launched Senate Bill 153, which would test folks applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for drugs. (Sponors Senator Phil Jensen and Rep. Elizabeth May must have been envious of all the Facebook hits Rep. Lynne DiSanto got.)
Ah, but Senator Jensen and Rep. May aren’t going after all TANF applicants. SB 153 would randomly test two percent of all adult TANF applicants. And Senator Jensen and Rep. May further soften the hammer on the poor with a three-strikes policy. The randomly chosen subjects who test positive suffer no penalty and can still start receiving TANF, but within 45 days, they have to pee in the cup again. If they pee hot the second time, the Department of Social Services “shall provide the applicant with information on available drug treatment programs, and the applicant shall be tested again within forty-five days.” Only if the applicant fails the third drug test does the applicant lose benefits for one year.
Applicants only pay for the drug tests themselves if they test positive; that money comes out of their benefit checks—but watch the books, DSS: the money for the first and second positive tests can come out of subsequent checks, but you’ll have to withhold money from a check prior to the third test, then refund the TANF recipient if she pees clean. So technically, SB 153 will withhold benefits for which a citizen is eligible without proof that the citizen is guilty of a violation.
SB 153 sounds kinder and gentler, but we’ll still have the same arguments in committee that we had about the DiSanto-Olson bill, HB 1076. Suspicionless drug testing is still unconstitutional. Drug-testing welfare applicants is still scientifically and medically unsound and fiscally irresponsible. And welfare recipients still test positive for drugs at a lower rate than the general population:
According to state data gathered by ThinkProgress, the seven states with existing programs — Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah — are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to ferret out very few drug users. The statistics show that applicants actually test positive at a lower rate than the drug use of the general population. The national drug use rate is 9.4 percent. In these states, however, the rate of positive drug tests to total welfare applicants ranges from 0.002 percent to 8.3 percent, but all except one have a rate below 1 percent. Meanwhile, they’ve collectively spent nearly $1 million on the effort, and millions more may have to be spent in coming years [Bryce Covert and Josh Israel, “What 7 States Discovered After Spending More Than $1 Million Drug Testing Welfare Recipients,” ThinkProgress, 2015.02.26].
Last year, South Dakota averaged about 5,900 TANF recipients a month. Only about 640 of those recipients are adults. If we test 2% of those recipients for drugs, and if the going positive rate for TANF recipients is 1%, we will catch 1.5 TANF dopers per year. To actually kick them off TANF, we’ll do three tests, tripling the cost to get even less of the cash benefit these welfare-loathing legislators bleat about when they say they’re stopping druggies from taking our hard-earned tax dollars.
While we’re at it, remember that little more than a quarter of TANF money goes to cash assistance; TANF spends more on programs meant to tackle child poverty, like childcare, refundable tax credits, subsidized jobs, and early childhood education. TANF isn’t just cash handed to the poor to go buy drugs: it’s mostly investments in healthy social policy. Interestingly, South Dakota spends more than 60% of its TANF dollars on basic assistance, leading the nation in that ratio.
But let’s get wild with the numbers here. The most recent numbers available from the feds show South Dakota spending $15.5 million a year on basic assistance. Multiply that amount by 11% (the percentage of adult recipients in South Dakota TANF), then by 2% (the number randomly tested), then by 1% (the percentage we’d expect from other states’ experience to test positive), and you get $336 in savings… and that assumes that every meathead who tests positive the first time lacks the brains or will to go clean before the second or third test.
$336? Rick Melmer made more than that consulting on GEAR UP for Mid-Central Educational Coop per day. Why don’t we have a bill making Melmer pee in a cup?
The Republican caucus will continue the myth-based bashing of low-income South Dakotans. We can keep arguing them down in committee, but the only long-term solution to end this crusade against false threats is to throw people like Phil Jensen, Elizabeth May, Lynne DiSanto, and Betty Olson out of the Legislature and elect replacements (read, Democrats) who dedicate themselves to real practical statecraft.