Welfare is the statutory procedure or social effort designed to promote the basic physical and material well-being of people in need. It is government support intended to help people meet their basic needs like food and shelter. In the United States, there are six major welfare programs: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and housing assistance.
The four major entitlement programs in the United States are Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and worker’s compensation. What sets welfare programs apart from entitlement programs are the eligibility requirements for welfare programs. Each of the six welfare programs has its own eligibility requirements and all include a maximum income requirement.
Income requirements are usually set by the states and are determined as a percentage of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). The federal standard is 130% of the FPL, but sometimes states have modified eligibility standards. For example, to be eligible for SNAP in Florida, households must have a gross income less than or equal to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level. One must prove that they are eligible for welfare programs to receive welfare benefits. In contrast, everyone is titled to entitlement programs regardless of their income as long as they contributed to that program by paying taxes.
The U.S. federal government provides funding for welfare programs while programs are administered by the states. Some states provide additional funding to expand the programs. Congress often debates welfare programs and considers reducing their funding. If Congress reduces funding for a program without reducing a state’s responsibilities for that program, it creates an unfunded mandate. This causes state and local governments, and sometimes even private sectors, to fill in the gaps in funding.
There are many misconceptions about welfare and who receives welfare. Welfare programs are often viewed with negativity because of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality in the U.S. People with this viewpoint see welfare recipients as undeserving or as people cheating the system. Welfare recipients are also often assumed to share a range of characteristics, most of which have racist and classist undertones.
One common myth about welfare is that recipients are unmotivated and not working. About 73% of recipients are from working families. Some programs, such as TANF, actually require that recipients work; these workers just need assistance until they are financially stable. Income inequality is another factor contributing to working individuals needing financial help. Because of wages, not everyone who works is able to pay for necessities such as food and shelter without some form of assistance. TANF programs also have a lifetime limit of five years. Many families use welfare to build their finances and get back on their feet with no intention of staying on it longer than needed.
The second misconception is that welfare recipients are mostly people of color, rooted in racist assumptions. It is also untrue: about 40% of SNAP recipients are white, making white people the largest racial group on food stamps. This fact is in spite of the systemic inequalities that put people of color behind white people in terms of wage earnings. People relatedly believe that undocumented populations are “stealing” welfare benefits from U.S. citizens who need them. This is both false and impossible. Undocumented people are not eligible for welfare programs. Even for immigrants who are legal U.S. residents, federal welfare programs have stringent criteria for eligibility.
The “welfare queen,” is a racialized stereotype that can be traced back to Ronald Regan in 1976 and is used to describe women accused of cheating the system to receive maximum benefits. Reagan described one woman in Chicago who used multiple names, addresses, and telephone numbers to collect food stamps and other government benefits. Her benefits amounted to over $150,000 per year. This incident is an exception, not the rule. Welfare programs have restrictions in place to prevent this type of incident from happening.
One final myth about welfare is that the programs are wasting taxpayer money. UC Berkeley found that welfare programs cost taxpayers about $152.8 billion every year. Compared to other federal spending, such as defense spending, this is a small percentage of the overall federal budget. It also indicates a need for better wages as current welfare benefits are not even close to being enough for low-income families in the U.S. These tax dollars aren’t wasted - they’re helping families who desperately need it.
Almost all U.S. states have enacted or proposed legislation requiring drug testing of people applying for welfare. The push for drug testing started in 1996 with a federal welfare reform for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Drug testing for welfare applicants and recipients is a controversial topic. Some believe that benefits can be difficult enough to receive without drug testing, and testing could unfairly target people’s past. Additionally, drug testing could fall down a slippery slope of unjustly profiling people, especially because of their race. Supporters, however, argue that because jobs often require passing drug tests for employment, there should similarly be a requirement to pass them to receive federally funded assistance.
In 2009, over 20 states proposed legislation that would require drug testing as part of eligibility for welfare programs. The following year, at least 12 states had similar proposals. Since then, similar legislation has continued to be proposed and eventually passed in multiple states.
Currently, seventeen states require drug testing for welfare. The states that drug test welfare applicants are: Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. Each of these states has different standards for who will be drug tested. Some only drug test those applicants who have a history of drug abuse or dependence, while others are randomly drug tested.
In other states, drug tests are permitted. These are usually done for applicants with a history or suspicion of drug use. The states that follow this are Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah, and West Virginia. Drug testing for welfare recipients is optional in all other states and the District of Columbia.
Welfare Drug Testing
SNAP Drug Felony Disqualification
TANF Drug Felony Disqualification
|Alabama||Mandated||Requires applicants and certain recipients upon reasonable suspicion of illegal substance abuse to undergo screening to detect the presence of drugs.||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||No Disqualification|
|Alaska||Mandated||For TANF, not other welfare programs||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Arizona||Mandated||Requires applicants and certain recipients upon reasonable suspicion of illegal substance abuse to undergo screening to detect the presence of drugs.||Lifetime Disqualification for Drug Felons||Lifetime Disqualification|
|Arkansas||Permitted||All applicants and recipients are screened, and if there is a reasonable suspicion of drug use they are required to take a drug test.||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|California||Permitted||Requirement depends on the welfare program||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||No Disqualification|
|Colorado||Permitted||Under reasonable suspicion, welfare recipients in Colorado will be subject to random drug testing.||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Connecticut||Optional||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Delaware||Optional||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||Lifetime Disqualification|
|District of Columbia||Optional||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||No Disqualification|
|Florida||Optional||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Georgia||Permitted||Applicants or recipients if there is “reasonable suspicion” of drug use.||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||Lifetime Disqualification|
|Hawaii||Optional||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Idaho||Mandated||All TANF applicants are screened for substance abuse and tested if the screening indicates the person is engaged in or at high risk for substance abuse.||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Illinois||Optional||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||Modified Disqualification|
|Indiana||Optional||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Iowa||Optional||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||Modified Disqualification|
|Kansas||Permitted||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Kentucky||Optional||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Louisiana||Mandated||All adult applicants for and recipients of TANF are screened for illegal drug use. When indicated by the screening or other reasonable cause, recipient undergoes formal assessment, which may include urine testing||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Maine||Mandated||For welfare recipients with a prior drug conviction (within the past 20 years) who indicate a potential for dependency, are now required to take drug tests. Those who refuse to take the test or test positive will be required to enter rehabilitation in order to continue receiving aid||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||Modified Disqualification|
|Maryland||Mandated||TANF applicants and recipients convicted of a drug related felony are subject to testing for substance abuse for two years.||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Massachusetts||Optional||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||Modified Disqualification|
|Michigan||Mandated||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Minnesota||Mandated||All applicants who have been convicted of a drug offense must submit to random drug testing.||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Mississippi||Permitted||All applicants are required to complete a questionnaire to determine the likelihood of a substance abuse problem. If there is likelihood that there is such a problem, the applicant must submit to a drug test||Lifetime Disqualification for Drug Felons||Lifetime Disqualification|
|Missouri||Mandated||Requires all applicants and recipients to be screened. Testing is required if the screening determines “reasonable cause to believe” the applicant/recipient “engages in illegal use of controlled substances.”||Modified Disqualification||Lifetime Disqualification|
|Montana||Mandated||Requires the department to adopt rules concerning random drug testing or reporting requirements for convicted drug felons.||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Nebraska||Optional||Modified Disqualification||Lifetime Disqualification|
|Nevada||Optional||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|New Hampshire||Optional||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||No Disqualification|
|New Jersey||Mandated||In order to be eligible, individuals convicted of a drug-related offense must complete drug treatment program, and undergo drug testing while in the program and for a 60-day period after completion.||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||Modified Disqualification|
|New Mexico||Optional||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||Modified Disqualification|
|New York||Optional||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||No Disqualification|
|North Carolina||Permitted||Requires drug tests for all applicants and recipients who are “reasonably” suspect of using illegal controlled substances.||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|North Dakota||Optional||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Ohio||Optional||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||No Disqualification|
|Oklahoma||Permitted||Requires all applicants to be screened using a “Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory” (SASSI) process. If “reasonable cause” is determined, drug tests may be administered.||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||No Disqualification|
|Oregon||Optional||Modified Disqualification||No Disqualification|
|Pennsylvania||Mandated||All public assistance (TANF, food stamps, general assistance, State supplemental assistance) applicants convicted of a felony drug offense. At least 20% of recipients convicted of a felony must undergo random drug testing during each six month period following enactment||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Rhode Island||Optional||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||No Disqualification|
|South Carolina||Mandated||TANF recipients who are “identified as requiring alcohol and other drug abuse service,” or convicted of an alcohol- or drug-related offense or give birth to a child with evidence of maternal substance abuse must submit to random drug testing and/or participate in a treatment program||Lifetime Disqualification for Drug Felons||Lifetime Disqualification|
|South Dakota||Optional||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||Lifetime Disqualification|
|Tennessee||Mandated||Applicants will be screened using a “Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory” (SASSI) process to determine “reasonable cause that an applicant for TANF is using a drug.” If “reasonable cause” is determined, drug tests may be administered.||Modified Disqualification||Modified Disqualification|
|Texas||Mandated||Modified Disqualification||Lifetime Disqualification|
|Utah||Permitted||Requires applicants to complete a written drug screening questionnaire. If “reasonable likelihood” is determined, drug tests may be administered.||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||Modified Disqualification|
|Vermont||Optional||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||No Disqualification|
|Virginia||Optional||Modified Disqualification||Lifetime Disqualification|
|Washington||Optional||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||No Disqualification|
|West Virginia||Permitted||Caseworkers will determine whether there is a “reasonable suspicion” that an applicant is abusing drugs. If so, a drug test will be ordered.||Lifetime Disqualification for Drug Felons||No Disqualification|
|Wisconsin||Mandated||Modified Disqualification||No Disqualification|
|Wyoming||Optional||No Disqualification for Drug Felons||No Disqualification|