Florida hoping to move ahead with welfare drug testing law

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011 at 11:46 am | More from The Florida Independent

The Florida Department of Children and Families testified before a state House committee Tuesday about the implementation of new drug screening requirements placed on Temporary Assistance for Need Families (aka TANF) applicants.

So far, the department reports that about 2.7 percent of temporary assistance applicants were denied because they tested positive for illegal drug use. Pete Digre, who briefed the committee on behalf of the department, said that “very, very few people are testing positive.”

Digre told the committee that one of the more interesting numbers the department has seen so far was the 563 applicants who started an application but failed to “show up” for the drug test. Some members of the committee alluded to the possibility that this meant the law was deterring drug users from applying for cash assistance.

A Republican member of the committee asked Digre if he had “noticed perhaps decrease in the number of people that are applying for TANF funds because perhaps they know they are going to fail the drug test?”

Digre said that the current data they have is probably “statistically insignificant” and such a trend cannot be proven. He also pointed to the fact that there has been about a 17 percent decrease in TANF applications for the past few years. He credited the slowly improving economy for that fact.

According to the “Social Services Estimating Conference for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” summary report (.pdf) released this month by Florida’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, “caseloads would fall as economic activity and employment opportunities improved”:

The decline since the last conference has been more rapid than those projections. Caseloads for single parent families dropped 6.3% in FY 2010-11 from the prior year, and the decline is expected to accelerate to an 18.7% fall this fiscal year. Similarly, the unemployed two-parent family category dropped 14.5% last fiscal year with a further decline of 28.5% projected for the current fiscal year.

But a new conservative policy group in Florida called the Foundation for Government Accountability last week released a report that claims that “given the significant decline in August 2011 approvals, it appears to be a very significant trend and quite likely related to the drug testing requirement, as the economy did not change radically from June through August.”

Derek Newton, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties of Florida, tells The Florida Independent that the assumption that these applicants are avoiding the drug test because they will test positive is “unverifyiable.”

He says there are a number of reasons that an applicant does not submit to a drug test, which do not include illegal drug use. One of the reasons mentioned during the committee meeting is the price of the screening process.

The average cost to applicants is currently about $30. For those requiring cash assistance, that price may simply be too high, Newton says.

State Rep. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, pointed out during the committee hearing that even though there are 351 labs across the state that provide the tests, there are still five counties that do not have a lab for applicants to go to. The number of people who did not submit a drug test because of the unavailability of a lab where they live is also unknown.

Digre said that these type of questions need to be studied once more information becomes available.

In his testimony, Dingre said that the average amount of time someone receives cash assistance is currently “less than a half of a year.”

While Newton says most of the information provided Tuesday “was not surprising,” that bit of data was. Most projections used to make the claim that the law would save the state large amounts of money use a longer time frame than that, he says.

The ACLU of Florida is currently representing Luis Lebron, who has filed a lawsuit over the constitutionality of the drug testing law. Lebron is a full-time student, a Navy veteran and a single father. He was denied benefits he was otherwise qualified for because he refused to waive his Fourth Amendment rights and submit to a drug test.

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, has filed legislation that would repeal the drug testing law.

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