JACKSON – No Mississippian applying for assistance through the Temporary Aid For Needy Families program has undergone treatment since the state enacted a drug testing protocol in August 2014.
During that time period, according to information compiled by the Mississippi Department of Human Services, 56 people have been sanctioned or have not been eligible for TANF benefits. The bulk of those lost their benefits not because they did not pass a drug test, but because they refused to undergo the drug test.
House Public Health Chair Sam Mims, R-McComb, the main author of the legislation establishing the drug testing procedure, said the intent of the bill “was to help people get treatment so they could be better citizens, more productive citizens of Mississippi. If people choose not to go to treatment, we cannot force them. That is their choice.”
According to information provided by Paul Nelson, a DHS spokesman, since August 2014 when the program was enacted, 307 people applying for TANF benefits have been tested for drugs and 17 of those have tested positive for drugs.
A total of 56 have lost benefits, consisting of the 17 who tested positive for drugs and an additional 39 who refused to submit to the drug test.
But apparently none of the people who were sanctioned or did not receive benefits went through a drug treatment program.
“The MDHS has not expended any funds for drug treatment as a result of TANF drug testing,”Nelson said in an emailed response. “Any medically approved drug treatment would be covered by the individual’s Medicaid benefits; however, to the agency’s knowledge, no individual has followed through with seeking drug treatment.”
Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, who opposed the drug testing legislation, said the program is not finding rampant drug use and not providing treatment when it is found.
“At the same time people are being disparaged,” he said.
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, agreed, saying the program is costing the state additional money without accomplishing much, while interfering with a program “designed to help people get back on their feet. It is supposed to be redemptive, not punitive.”
TANF is a federal program administered by the state designed to provide temporary assistance for low-income people. It used to be called welfare.
In general, TANF benefits are provided for families that include a child under the age of 18, according to the DHS website. For a family of two, the total monthly benefit is $146 with an additional $24 for each additional child. A family of three must earn no more than $682 per month and have countable assets of $2,000 or less to be eligible for the program.
When asked what happens to a child if an adult is sanctioned and cannot receive the TANF benefits, Nelson said, the parent can designate “a protective payee” to receive and manage the benefits on behalf of the child.
“The designation of a protective payee enables the children to receive a monthly benefit even when the parent is incapable or unwilling to care for the needs of the family,” Nelson explained in the email.
A person can receive benefits while in treatment, but a person who tests positive for drugs and does not undergo treatment is sanctioned for three months on the first offense and 12 months on the second offense.
Under the drug testing legislation that was passed during the 2014 session, a person applying for TANF is screened to determine whether the person might be a drug user. If the screen indicates the possibility of drug use, the person must submit to the drug test in order to receive TANF benefits.
The state pays $10,000 annually for the drug testing program.
DHS currently has a caseload of almost 5,700 TANF recipients. People are eligible to receive TANF benefits for up to 60 months. People are mandated to be working, looking for a job or in programs leading to a job to receive the benefits.
Senate Pubic Health Committee Chair Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, said, “I did not expect miracles” from the drug testing program. But he said, “If we can help one person, save one person’s life, then it is a good bill.”