It’s far from certain whether the latest reforms from Walker will pass federal muster. Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, Walker’s requests to implement drug testing in SNAP were denied or held up by the Department of Agriculture under the rationale that they constituted an additional eligibility barrier that Wisconsin wasn’t entitled to impose. While the state disagreed with that assessment, the argument wasn’t a new one: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, part of the Health and Human Services Department, has also traditionally denied waiver requests from states to implement work requirements and drug testing for Medicaid.
Walker may see an opening, though, under the Trump administration. Early in her tenure, CMS Administrator Seema Verma wrote a letter signaling that the agency would accept work requirements in Medicaid waivers, like the one currently being considered for Wisconsin. She also announced last month that it “will approve proposals that promote community-engagement activities,” which typically include work, job training, or community service. According to Kaiser Health News, health-care advocates expect this move from Verma presages the agency’s support for further conservative reforms affecting Medicaid eligibility, such as drug testing.
The USDA has also signaled that it is willing to consider conservative reforms to SNAP, after a federal court threw out Walker’s suit against the department over his original drug-testing proposal in 2016. Shortly after Walker sent his SNAP drug-testing regulation to the state legislature for review last week, the USDA issued a press release stressing “how important it is for states to be given flexibility to achieve the desired goal of self-sufficiency for people.” In both messaging and timing, the USDA’s release seemed to offer a direct reassurance to Walker: The terms “self-sufficiency” and “workforce development,” both of which the department included in its notice, were used heavily by Walker in his promotion of drug testing and in his welfare overhaul generally.
With the federal government sending encouraging messages on welfare reform, it’s worth considering what those changes would mean for Wisconsin’s low-income citizens. Walker has defended his SNAP drug-testing plan by arguing that “people battling substance-use disorders will be able to get the help they need to get healthy and get back into the workforce.” But it’s unlikely the rule would actually work that way. According to ThinkProgress, results from Wisconsin’s limited rollout of drug testing in TANF showed that “in 2016, at least 1.6 times as many people were denied benefits for failing to follow through on a drug test as those who tested positive.”
That’s not the only potential consequence. In the welfare drug-testing schemes that are out there, states bear high costs for drug tests that rarely come up positive, and the chilling effect on enrollment is much greater than the number of people who end up receiving treatment. Put another way, people who do need drug treatment the most will be the least likely to follow through with screening, and thus will be those most likely to lose benefits. Drug testing also places yet another burden on low-income people who aren’t drug users, but have trouble finding time or transportation to complete the tests.