Drug testing for food stamps may be coming soon
WASHINGTON - The Trump administration is considering a plan that would allow states to require certain food stamp recipients to undergo drug testing, handing a win to conservatives who've long sought ways to curb the safety net program.
The proposal under review would be narrowly targeted, applying mostly to people who are able-bodied, without dependents and applying for some specialized jobs, according to an administration official briefed on the plan. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said roughly 5 percent of participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could be affected.
The drug-testing proposal is another step in the Trump administration's push to allow states more flexibility in how they implement federal programs that serve the poor, unemployed or uninsured. It also wants to allow states to tighten work requirements for food stamp recipients and has found support among GOP governors who argue that greater state control saves money and reduces dependency.
Internal emails obtained by The Associated Press indicated that Agriculture Department officials in February were awaiting word from the White House about the timing of a possible drug-testing announcement.
"I think we just have to be ready because my guess is we may get an hour's notice instead of a day's notice," wrote Jessica Shahin, associate administrator of SNAP.
Conservative policymakers have pushed for years to tie food assistance programs to drug testing.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, sued the USDA in 2015 for blocking the state from drug testing adults applying for food stamps.
A federal judge tossed the suit in 2016, but Walker renewed his request for permission later that year, after Donald Trump had won the presidency but before he took office.
"We turned that down," said former USDA Food and Nutrition Service Undersecretary Kevin Concannon, who served in the position under the Obama administration from 2009 until January of last year. "It's costly and cumbersome."
The proposal isn't expected to be included in a GOP-written farm bill that could be released as soon as early this week, a GOP aide said.
In the House, that bill has already run into stiff Democratic opposition over provisions that add new job-training requirements and remove some SNAP recipients who qualify via state rules with asset levels that are higher than federal limits.
Federal law bars states from imposing their own conditions on food stamp eligibility. Still, some states have tried to implement some form of drug testing for the food assistance program, so far with little success.
Judges have blocked similar efforts in other states. In Florida in 2014, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that testing SNAP recipients for drugs is unconstitutional.
But at least 20 states have introduced legislation to screen safety net program participants in some capacity, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In December, Walker began moving ahead with a workaround, testing participants in the state's Employment and Training Program who also received food stamps for drugs.
The USDA under President Trump has not taken a public position on drug testing. But Secretary Sonny Perdue has promised to provide states with "greater control over SNAP."
"As a former governor, I know first-hand how important it is for states to be given flexibility to achieve the desired goal of self-sufficiency for people," he said. "We want to provide the nutrition people need, but we also want to help them transition from government programs, back to work, and into lives of independence."
The emails obtained by the AP suggest that a plan could be forthcoming. It would apply to able-bodied people who don't have dependents and are applying for certain jobs, such as operating heavy machinery, the official said.
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