Concerns still exist for TANF drug screening bill - - Jackson, MS

Concerns still exist for TANF drug screening bill

A screening process could now stand in the way of some applicants getting welfare benefits.

The state legislature has passed a bill requiring a drug screening process. It now goes to the governor to be signed into law.

Yet there's concern about unintended consequences.

"There is no more likelihood that a person receiving public assistance is a drug user than anyone else," said ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director Jennifer Riley-Collins.

Last year, on average the Mississippi Department of Human Services handled 10,464 families' TANF caseloads. Those families received an average of $140 dollars a month from TANF. That breaks down to $67 dollars for individuals.

"The whole background of TANF is temporary assistance for needy families and those people either need to be in school, ok? Or have a job," said Riley-Collins. "That's the only way you can qualify for TANF. And then you have to have children in the house."

It's the children that she worries will suffer the consequences if House Bill 49 is signed into law.

"TANF is set up specifically for children to assist with food and housing," Riley-Collins described. "You have to have a child in the house to receive this assistance, so basically we are taking food out of the mouths of babes."

The bill doesn't require TANF applicants to be automatically drug tested. Instead, they'll fill out a questionnaire. If those answers show they likely have a substance abuse problem, they'll have to take a drug test. Even still, they would get a second chance. They could enroll in a treatment program without losing the TANF benefits.

"Basically we're saying through this law that if you're in need of public assistance that there's a different set of rules for you," explained Riley-Collins.

Governor Phil Bryant views the purpose of the legislation differently. He said in a statement: "The TANF program is a safety net for families in need, and adding this screening process will aid adults who are trapped in a dependency lifestyle so they can better provide for their children."

The National Conference of State Legislatures' documents show nine other states have passed legislation that requires TANF applicants to be screened or tested for drug use.

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