Screening and Assessment in TANF\Welfare-to-Work: Ten Important Questions TANF Agencies and Their Partners Should Consider. Should Drug Testing Be Used to Identify Substance Use Among TANF Recipients ?


Drug testing is an emerging, controversial issue in the TANF community. Drug testing - through urinalysis, blood, or hair testing - has been used as a part of the substance abuse treatment and criminal justice systems for some time and is increasingly being used by employers. The goals of drug testing in these settings are to determine if an individual is following a required treatment plan or to screen out drug users as a step in the hiring process.

The uses of drug testing in TANF programs are not as clear. They include identifying substance use problems as a potential barrier to employment or monitoring compliance with treatment required as part of a TANF client's service plan. Drug testing might also serve as a screen for TANF work programs referring clients to job opportunities with employers known to drug test applicants. More punitive uses, such as denying benefits to recipients who refuse random drug tests, are controversial. A federal court in Michigan indicated that the use of drug testing in this manner may be unconstitutional, influencing other states potentially interested in adopting this type of policy, at least for the time being, to hold off on adopting this approach.82

In addition to the legal implications of the uses of drug testing, states should carefully consider the limitations that come with this form of identification. For example, drug testing identifies recent drug use, not substance abuse or addiction. Given TANF agencies' focus on barriers to employment, they may be more interested in on-going addiction or abuse problems, not usage. Among other limitations, drug testing can:

be expensive;

be considered unethical if used in situations where drug use is not suspected (i.e., such as the case of random or universal testing); and

create an environment of confrontation or suspicion that prohibits the development of a positive relationship between case managers and TANF clients, thus inhibiting other barrier identification and constructive service planning.


Although many questions remain regarding drug testing, this is an emerging issue in the area of barrier identification that TANF agencies may choose to monitor.83

82  American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Judge Blocks First-Ever Mandatory Drug Testing of Michigan Welfare Recipients. Press Release. November 10, 1999.

83  See also the forthcoming Technical Assistance Publication by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, Identifying Substance Abuse Among TANF Eligible Families.

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