TANF and Drug Testing: Historical Overview and Goals


When Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act Public Law 104-193 (PRWORA) in 1996, the United States reshuffled and, in some ways, curtailed standing welfare programs to various degrees. One program that faced massive overhaul was the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program which primarily target and supported families with children who had little to no income. With the passing of the 1996 act, ADFC was transitioned into the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and a number of shifts occurred concerning the implementation of welfare at the state level and the relationship of the national government in providing welfare. In this blog post, I aim to do two things to understand these latter nuances.

First, I will briefly dive into some of the nuances of TANF in order to unpack the conversations that led up to its passage, the differences between TANF and AFDC, and how TANF purports to achieve its goals at the state level. Second, I will also look at a specific implementation of TANF found in Arizona that has incorporated drug testing for cause as part of the requirements for being on TANF assistance. The intentionality of this focus is, in part, due to conversations earlier in 2018 surrounding the possible implementation of drug testing for food stamp recipients. Although such policies have not yet been implemented at the national level, I believe that investigating instances when drug testing has been implemented for welfare, broadly construed, will give us a better idea about the background assumptions underlying welfare programs and the social views of welfare recipients as reflected by the policies aimed to include, or exclude, some individuals from such programs.

Concerning its passage, TANF as noted above was part of the social welfare reform brought about in 1996 by the signing PRWORA. Earlier, Bill Clinton had promised to “end welfare as we know it” as part of his 1992 presidential  run and, once elected, eventually worked with a Republican majority Congress to introduce welfare reform in the form of restructuring monetary allocations to states and changing eligibility requirements. With respect to the restructuring, we can divide the changes into the following categories: federal assistance to states, scope of persons covered, work requirements, and time limitation for benefits.

Concerning the federal assistance to states, while under AFDC the funds were unlimited insofar as they would vary by the caseloads of the state, under TANF states received block grants of a fixed amount with the expectation that the states contribute (and spend?) a specific percentage on programing (known as “maintenance-of-effort“) in order to qualify the following calendar year for another block grant. With respect to person’s covered, with TANF there was an explicit shift away from a default entitlement to aid for all eligible persons. Previously, federal guidelines required coverage for households and families under a certain income and with children (e.g., single-parent families, households with at least one parent who was disabled/unemployed, etc.). Under TANF, however, the states were free to determine inclusion guidelines to fit their needs and, as such, some restricted the programs to the exclusion of historically eligible persons.

An additional shift in coverage concerned work expectations. While under AFDC there were requirements when participating in the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training (JOBS) program, there weren’t explicit work expectations per se. Under TANF, all recipients are expected to work and to hold a job as soon as possible and must hold a job following two years enrollment in TANF or risk termination of benefits. At the state level, there is also a threshold requirement whereby states must have at least 50% of all families on TANF and 90% of two parent households working a specified number of hours per week (ranging from 20-55 hours).

The other major change within the policy concerns time limitations for being on TANF. While AFDC had no time limit for the benefits, TANF recipients are restricted to receiving assistance for no more than 60 months (5 years) total over one’s lifespan. While 5 years is the upper limit federally, States are also allowed to set lower limits on lifetime utilization such as two years.

The rationale for the changes in welfare policy ranged from concerns about too many people utilizing and becoming reliant on the program, lack of welfare to work incentives, and the costs. By setting time limits for benefits, shifting requirements for eligibility, and requiring work, TANF hoped to incentivize persons to reenter the workforce as soon as possible while also decreasing the overall numbers of persons enrolled in the program.

Given the leeway at the state level for implementation, I want to briefly touch on how TANF has been implemented in Arizona. 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 are 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.

This statement is in accordance with Arizona law 46-219 (Supplemental nutrition assistance program; eligibility after conviction; drug testing; rules) and 13-3418 (Ineligibility to receive public benefits; restoration; definition) which serve as the guidelines for restricting or allowing those convicted of certain crimes to be the recipients of state funds.  The formal rational for the policy was to save up to $1.7 million a year by removing persons who would possibly misuse the funds from the pool of benefactors thus allowing money to be focused on those who were deserving of the benefits and decreasing the overall spending. There is more to be said on this rationale, and the rationale of the policy changes initiated by PRWORA, but that is for the next blog.


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