84 welfare applicants fail drug test under state program - WSMV News 4

84 welfare applicants fail drug test under state program

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Mohammad Abdullahi is not afraid to admit he needs help.

Abdullahi has lived in Nashville for 15 years and said he works hard to support his eight children.

“They love me and I love them,” Mohammad Abdullahi said. “I will never quit supporting them."

Abdullahi is one of the thousands of Tennesseans who receives welfare benefits. He said he thinks people who apply for government assistance should expect to be drug tested.

“They should be drug tested because they’re taking money,” Abdullahi said. “It’s free money. Maybe some people are going to do something in a bad way."

Others agree—so much so that Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill in 2012, allowing the state to drug test applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

TANF is a cash-assistance benefit offered to people with families. The applicants must often fulfill a work requirement.

The state follows suspicion-based testing, which means applicants must answer questions about their history of drug use. Based on those answers, the state may subject the applicant to testing.

“I think most public taxpayers feel like that if you take public assistance, you don’t do drugs,” said House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Thompson’s Station. “And if you do drugs, then don’t take public assistance.”

Casada voted for the bill when it passed in 2012.

So how many of those applicants actually failed?

Numbers provided by the Tennessee Department of Human Services show 0.1 percent of TANF applicants in Tennessee have tested positive for drugs since 2014, when the law went into effect.

“I think it should be time to re-examine it, and based on numbers you’re telling me and your investigation shows I think maybe we need to go a different route here,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.

The price to test TANF applicants in Tennessee since 2014 amounts to $38,934.

“Is this law working?" asked reporter Alanna Autler.

“I don't know if it's working the way it was written in the sense we're being compliant with the way it’s written,” said Stephanie Jarnagin, with the Tennessee Department of Human Services. “But I don't think it's up for us to decide whether or not it’s good policy necessarily.”

Supporters of the testing say the law keeps drug users from taxpayer-funded benefits.

More than 54,835 people applied for TANF in Tennessee between when the law passed in 2014 and Dec. 31 of last year. During that same time period, 814 people were flagged to be drug tested.

Of that pool, 84 people failed the drug test.

“Don't expect the taxpayers to give you something if you aren’t willing to help yourself,” Casada said. “I think the symbolic message is the message."

Casada said the law has saved taxpayer dollars by keeping money from drug users.

It’s an amount that’s difficult to quantify.

Jarnagin said 167 people have abandoned the application process since 2014 when the law took effect. But she said DHS has no idea why people walk away, and the reasons could range from moving out of states to a change in financial circumstance.

Some said the law sends a different message: that if you apply for welfare, you’re already suspected of breaking the law.

“What happens about the people who don’t do drugs who still have to get drug tested?” asked Kyle Meadows, a man who applied for benefits in Cheatham County. “They don’t deserve that.”

Failing a drug test doesn’t necessarily mean that applicants lose their shot at TANF benefits. The applicant can go through a drug treatment program, which they must pay for.

In the event the state does deny an applicant benefits, the cash assistance can still be given to the applicant’s family. In 16 cases, benefits were routed to children through a protected pay play, Jarnagin said.

Jarnagin added it’s inaccurate to think this law saves money since any denied benefits would go back to helping other recipients. She said currently there is neither a waiting list nor a backlog for benefits.

The money for TANF comes from a federal block grant.

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