by Theo Schall

 

Maine will soon become the eighteenth state to require that welfare recipients pass a drug test. The new rule, approved by the legislature in 2011, applies to federal funding provided through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Unlike other states where random testing screens all applicants, Maine will only require drug tests of applicants with prior drug-related convictions.

 

Those most harmed by a more restrictive application process won’t be the applicants themselves, but their dependents. TANF is a cash benefit that is only available to pregnant women and families with dependent children. State officials report that around 11,000 Maine children currently receive TANF benefits, and that the number of people affected by the new testing requirement could number in the hundreds.

 

While the idea of refusing cash assistance to drug users holds emotional appeal, the reality is that this requirement will have the biggest impact on the children of poor drug users with histories of addiction and incarceration. These are children who face the longest odds and who need social assistance most. Maine ranks 41st out of the 50 states in the value of its social safety net, which means TANF dollars must stretch farther to cover children’s basic needs, and that loss of the benefit is likely to have a particularly serious effect.

 

American children are already the nation’s poorest age group, with those under five the poorest. Childhood poverty has devastating lifelong effects: on average, poor children are hungrier, less academically successful, at greater risk of being homeless, and likelier to develop health problems than wealthier children. Studies have found that the longer a child spends in poverty, the greater the negative impact on physical and mental health in adolescence and early adulthood. Punishing poor children for the behavior of their parents compounds intergenerational social injustice.

 

Governor Paul LePage is quoted as saying the state “must ensure that our tax dollars do not enable the continuation of a drug addiction.” This policy goal must be balanced against other needs. Is uncovering less than a hundred drug users so important that it’s worth exposing children to greater risk of homelessness and hunger?

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