Wisconsin will begin drug-testing food stamp users, despite criticism and not having authorization

67,400 people who need public assistance will be tested. Only 220 are expected to test positive for drug use.

Better to ask forgiveness than permission. At least, that’s what Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker seems to have decided: He’s moving forward with drug-testing requirements for people using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) in his state, even though the federal government has not yet responded to his most recent request for explicit permission, reports the Associated Press.

Drug testing for other public assistance programs has caught on in recent years.
States have been trying to implement drug testing requirements for SNAP users for years. In 2016, 12 governors asked the federal government for permission to do just that, though current federal rules prohibit states from imposing extra requirements on eligible families. President Trump’s administration has not granted explicit permission for testing in response to states’ pleas.

On Monday, Walker sent instructions to the state legislature to implement SNAP screening requirements (screenings are conducted by questionnaire). The legislature now has four months to review the rule.

Florida passed a law similar to Wisconsin’s in 2011, but it was struck down in 2014 by a federal appeals court when the judge ruled that drug tests constitute unreasonable search. Still, drug testing for other public assistance programs has caught on in recent years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: 15 states have passed legislation on the subject as of March 2017, and legislation has been introduced in at least 20 states. Some of these laws require caseworkers to demonstrate that they have reason to believe an applicant is using drugs before requiring a test; Wisconsin’s screens everyone.

Democratic state Senator Lena Taylor said that Walker was perpetuating a “meaningless contest to see how cruel and discriminatory we can be to the poor”

According to the Associated Press, the Walker administration expects about 0.3 percent of program applicant drug tests to show positive results. Why is he so gung-ho about testing an estimated 67,400 people if he thinks only 220 drug users will be identified?

Employers have jobs available, but they need skilled workers who can pass a drug test. This rule change means people battling substance use disorders will be able to get the help they need to get healthy, and get back into the workforce,” Walker said in a statement. His policy requires that all applicants participate in a drug screening process; then, if necessary, a test.

The New York Times editorial board denounced Walker’s talking points in May as “sloganeering,” adding that policies like mandatory drug testing “blame the poor for being poor.” Democratic state Senator Lena Taylor said the policy “borders on immoral,” and that Walker was perpetuating a “meaningless contest to see how cruel and discriminatory we can be to the poor.”

Drug testing for SNAP users in other states has yielded few positive results. Advocates argue that mandatory tests stigmatize both addiction and welfare. Barring intervention from state and federal government, Walker’s administration will start testing SNAP applicants for drug use sometime next year.

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H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.