TANF and Drug Testing: A Critique of Background Motives and Assumptions

In the previous blogpost, I examined a truncated history of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program which emerged from the 1996 passing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act Public Law 104-193 (PRWORA) by Bill Clinton. As noted in that post, PRWORA overhauled the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program which primarily target and supported families with children who had little to no income and transitioned that program into what we now know as TANF.

In this blogpost, I aim to problematize the specific elements that I highlighted in the previous post of: federal assistance to states, scope of persons covered, work requirements, and time limitation for benefits. In doing so, I hope to illustrate how such shifts fail to meet liberatory goals of placing the system into the service of the dispossessed and, furthermore, rely on elements of meritocracy and individualized solutions to systemic problems, among other things. Additionally, I turn to the implementation of drug testing for cause in Arizona’s implementation of TANF in order to further illustrate how TANF is also framed at the state level to exclude those who are seen as being at fault for their social position of being in need. That said, I will also highlight some of the positive elements of the latter insofar as provisions are made for families with children even if those provisions are limited. In doing the above I aim to clarify the target constituents of the provisions, to establish the exclusionary criteria for being a beneficiary, and to note the model of justice operating beneath the surface that pushes welfare reform that decreases its efficacy, implementation, and scope.

When we consider the welfare state illustrated by the existence of such provisions such as TANF and the system in which it operates, we can see a Rawlsian conception of justice insofar as there is welfare for those in need operating under the difference principle. For Rawls,  inequalities and elements of a distributive justice are morally permissible insofar as they are to the advantage of the least well off in the project of reaching a just and (in the long run) equal end state for all persons using a pattered principle.

This conception of justice, however, is in tension with what I see as a more pervasive Nozickian understanding of justice within and against which the Rawlsian conception is being applied. Unlike the patterned, end-state principle found in Rawls, Nozick’s principle of justice was procedural and allowed for end-states in which there was an unequal distribution of goods so long as the distribution came about through just transfers and holdings. Under this understanding of justice, welfare initiatives such as TANF are unjust insofar as they redistribute goods to persons who have no entitlement to those goods which, through taxation, are provided by the labor of others.

The above should illustrate, I hope, how AFDC seemingly operated under a Rawlsian conception of justice and saw persons as entitled to certain elements of welfare. In contrast, TANF moves towards a more Nozickian understanding in the following ways. First, concerning federal assistance the role of the federal government is lessened and instead states are responsible for managing and implementing the programs. Likewise, states become the loci of determining the requirements for inclusion in the programs and the limitations. Concerning the scope of persons covered, as noted above we see a shift from default entitlement in accordance with federal policies to state level policies and practices that can be exclusionary of those would be otherwise qualified. In general the main beneficiaries of the program were children with single parents, children with at least one parent who was disabled/unemployed, and parents with children who fell below a certain threshold of income. That said, when marriage and cohabitation enter the picture, things can be a bit more variable with respect to coverage.

Under TANF,  how the income is tabulated and how resources are distributed also changes somewhat from the AFDC regulations. While there may still be requirements to furnish childcare for those in need and transportation assistance, for example, monetary support can be limited at the state level to a specific subset of the poor and tweaked to stay in-line with federal guidelines while  supposedly decreasing the overall amount needed to support families at the state level. In general, it is also the case that regionally displaced persons and undocumented persons are excluded from the pool of beneficiaries for their first five years in situ even though that also varies on a state by state basis.

Additional constituents could, if we take the broadened Nozickian implication seriously, include those who under AFDC had their labor stolen from them to pay for the programs. However, I am mostly going to set that aside in order to examine the exclusionary criteria and use Arizona’s drug testing application as an illustration of those criteria which, from a social justice lens, are unjust.

As noted in the previous blogpost, starting in 2009 Arizona passed a law that “prevent(ed) DES from giving cash assistance to adults who test positive for illegal-drug use.” As part of the provisions for receiving TANF benefits in Arizona, all recipients were required to sign an Illegal Drug Use Statement from the Family Assistance Administration that permits the Department of Economic Security to drug test persons for if they believe that the person is using illegal drugs. In this way we can see that there is an implicit division between those seen as deserving aid on a type of individualistic, merit based calculus and those who, through their own actions, exclude themselves from the pool of possible beneficiaries. Drug users on this view are seen as being responsible for being not as well off as their peers due to choosing to engage in a lifestyle that take away from their ability to be a productive member of society.

In hashing things out this way, on the ground applications of TANF implicitly rely on a myth of meritocracy–the idea that those who work hard will be rewarded for their labor, appeal to individualistic solutions to account for being dispossessed–i.e., if the drug users stopped using drugs they wouldn’t be poor, and fail to acknowledge any systemic elements that contribute to the perpetuation of intergenerational oppression. The applications also clearly show that states, at bottom, are concerned with financial security and willing to go through exclusionary measure to save money by appeals to excluding the underserving from benefits.

From a social justice lens that take oppression and dispossession as being symptoms of imbedded structural shortcomings, these interventionist strategies are inadequate on the one hand and perpetuate the problem on the other. For example, with drug users there are strong reasons to believe that their behavior is not reasons responsive and requires intentional structured interventions–not simply the threat of being excluded from a needed service. If we turn to the work requirements, we can see these requirements as pushing persons to settle for any type of work that will check the box as opposed to being able to find work that opens up the possibility of more than subsistence living. So long as the problem is reduced to the level of the individual, however, we will fail to see that mobility is constrained by systemic conditions and elements that are beyond the control of any one person.

This is not to say that, in general, the programs aren’t helpful to persons in need and, in the case of drug users their children are not removed from the pool of beneficiaries if their parent(s) are found to be using drugs. The extant system helps some people to survive, yes, but we would be mistaken to engage in moral self-deception and to ignore the shortcomings and limitations of the current systems. Even then TANF and the Arizona instantiation of the policy operate on a foundation whereby people must prove that they suffer in terms that the persons in power can understand. In proving that they suffer, there is no guarantee that the kindness they receive, and it is a kindness, will not be rescinded at the whim of new policies or if and when the lines between the deserving and undeserving poor get redrawn. To see a different model, consider the following:

Here the default is not to have others prove that they suffer and then to act exceptionally, but to see inaction as the exception and to strive for hospitality. For TANF and other such programs, we settle for kindness and victim blaming when, perhaps, we could strive for hospitality and do what we can to mitigate suffering caused by institutional cruelties beyond the level of the individual.


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