USDA emails suggest Trump will allow drug testing for food stamps users

Conservative leaders have long pushed to make drug-testing a prerequisite for social welfare programs, including SNAP. They may finally get their wish.

The Trump administration plans to allow states to require drug testing for food stamps recipients, the Associated Press reported Wednesday afternoon. The report cites internal emails that show United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials have been preparing for an announcement since February.

If and when that announcement comes, it will be a big deal. For months, we’ve been reporting on the efforts made by conservative politicians to limit access to the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP)—the $70-billion program which provides food assistance to over 40 million Americans. Some states, including Maine, have tried to make junk food ineligible for purchase under SNAP. And recent developments suggest that lawmakers on both sides are tangling over the program’s vast cost as farm bill negotiations heat up on Capitol Hill.

But the development reported by AP follows from a story we’ve been covering since 2017: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s plan to limit SNAP access by making drug-testing a requirement for some recipients. In December, The New Food Economy’s H. Claire Brown reported on Walker’s decision to move forward with drug-testing requirements in Wisconsin, even though the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which funds and oversees the program nationally, had blocked him in the past. Today’s report suggests that the Trump administration will do much more than concede Walker’s request—it’s going to allow other states to do the same thing.

This news comes as part of a much broader push to limit federal food assistance more generally.
Current federal rules prohibit states from imposing additional requirements on SNAP-eligible families, and previous attempts to do so have not fared well in the courts. Florida passed a SNAP drug-testing law in 2011, but a federal appeals court struck it down in 2014, arguing that the requirement was a form of unreasonable search. In 2014, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed into law a bill that required drug testing of SNAP applicants under “reasonable suspicion of substance abuse.” That law, too, was scuttled by a federal appeals court.

Direct overtures to the executive branch have also gone unheeded. In 2016, 12 governors asked the federal government for permission to drug test their state’s SNAP recipients, but no explicit permission had been granted.

The AP report suggests this may change very soon, citing an anonymous administration official with knowledge of the plan.

The drug testing proposal is another step in the Trump administration’s push to allow states more flexibility in how they implement federal programs that serve the poor, unemployed or uninsured,” according to AP.  “It also wants to allow states to tighten work requirements for food stamp recipients and has found support among GOP governors who argue greater state control saves money and reduces dependency.”

According to AP’s report, the group in question is able-bodied adults without dependents, known as ABAWDs. Recipients in this category are between 18 and 50 years old, and may have additional work requirements beyond those already required by SNAP.

Measures like these are nothing new—but today’s report suggests a new milestone in the effort is on the immediate horizon.
The group was first established during Clinton-era welfare reform. Under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act, benefits for this group became limited to three months over a three-year period. The group has been referred to as the “least deserving” demographic within welfare recipients.

AP estimates that around five percent of SNAP recipients, or 2 million people, would be affected by the Trump administration’s plan.

That might seem like a small percentage. But the news comes as part of a much broader push to limit federal food assistance more generally. Yesterday, President Trump signed an executive order that directed secretaries across the government to consider applying work requirements for a range of welfare programs from food to health care to housing. In a press release heralding the order, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue seemed to imply that millions more SNAP recipients should face additional work requirements, too. According to USDA, over 16 million “able-bodied adults,” with or without children, enrolled in SNAP in 2016. “We can and we must do a better job of moving these individuals to self-sufficiency,” Perdue wrote.

Besides the drug testing initiatives in Florida and Wisconsin, a number of states have explored more stringent work-for-welfare requirements. In February, Wisconsin passed a package of nine welfare reform bills, some of which impacted SNAP administration in the state—including upping the work requirements for ABAWDs from 20 to 30 hours a week. In March, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill that requires ABAWDs to work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week to receive benefits. While federal guidelines already make that stipulation to receive benefits, most of the counties in West Virginia had received a waiver that exempts them during times of high unemployment. The bill effectively ends the waiver.

Drug testing would not be an entirely new frontier for SNAP. Currently, four states test drug felons before they become eligible. Drug testing for cash welfare, meanwhile, has been in place since Clinton’s welfare reform. According to the AP, at least 15 states have passed laws that allow them to drug test recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, also known as TANF.

Politicians have tried to limit SNAP purchases throughout the program’s history, and measures like these are nothing new—but today’s report suggests a new milestone in the effort is on the immediate horizon.

We’ll keep updating this story as it progresses.

Also tagged


Joe Fassler is The Counter's deputy editor. His reporting has been included in The Best American Food Writing and twice nominated for a James Beard Media Award. A 2019 - 2020 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he's the author of two books: a novel, The Sky Was Ours (forthcoming from Penguin Books), and Light the Dark: Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.