Gwen Moore to Scott Walker: Testing food stamp recipients for drugs is unconstitutional

U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore

Dear Governor Walker, 

I am writing to express my strong opposition to the ill-advised and illegal proposal enacted in the recently adopted Wisconsin State budget to add a drug test as a requirement for participating in Food Share for some recipients.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is vital in helping to combat hunger in America and is a vital lifeline for over 800,000 in Wisconsin. I remind you that SNAP is a federal program and the federal government covers 100% of the costs of the benefits. Administrative costs are split between states and the federal government. As a result, federal law grants the federal government sole authority to set eligibility requirements for the program.

Yet, the State of Wisconsin seems intent on pursuing this misguided drug testing policy, though federal law on this matter is clear. After passage in the recent State Budget of this unwarranted, wasteful, and unconstitutional provision, you have now filed a frivolous lawsuit—at state taxpayer expense no less. Your lawsuit appears to implicitly acknowledge that the federal government could not legally allow this scheme to move forward and advances a very serious misinterpretation of federal law permitting drug testing for SNAP recipients that not even Republicans in Congress share.

How do I know? In 2013, I managed the time opposing the amendment that sought to permit states to add drug testing as a condition for SNAP eligibility during debate in on the farm bill in the House. That proposal (Sec. 136 of H.R. 3102, Hudson Amendment to H.R. 1947) sought to allow states to conduct drug testing for SNAP recipients beyond current law which allows states to ban or test convicted drug felons. The amendment was adopted in the House and incorporated into both H.R. 1947 and H.R. 3102. As noted by the Republican chairman of the House Agriculture Committee during debate on H.R. 3102, “Language allowing the States to very clearly use drug testing as a part of their SNAP application process was adopted by a majority of the votes on this floor.” It would be inconceivable that House Republicans would have pursued this legislation if your interpretation of federal law was, in fact, correct.

If I have not been clear, just over a year and a half ago, House Republicans recognized that no federal law allows drug testing of SNAP recipients by states beyond those with drug convictions. Congress then said NO to giving states that power as the House passed provisions were dropped from the final Farm Bill.

Federal law related to SNAP remains crystal clear on another item: States cannot add conditions of eligibility to SNAP, outside those required by federal law. Specifically, Section 5(b) of the Food and Nutrition Act (7 U.S.C. §2014(b)) states that “No plan of operation submitted by a State agency shall be approved unless the standards of eligibility meet those established by the Secretary, and no State agency shall impose any other standards of eligibility as a condition for participating in the program.” I applaud the work of the USDA to make sure that Wisconsin and other states are not allowed to add wasteful, unnecessary, and, in this case, unconstitutional, requirements to impose more hardships and obstacles to those who are food insecure in our communities. While you may be frustrated by this interpretation, the law remains the law. 

I won’t get into the very fallacious arguments behind proposals such as this that are based on the unfounded and unwarranted presumption most of the people who use food stamps also use drugs other than to express that I have seen neither your office nor proponents in the State Legislature provide one iota of scientific evidence supporting  that contention. I do know that Florida tried to drug test applicants for TANF benefits. Besides being struck down as unconstitutional by a federal court, it was wasteful as well given that Florida spent more money reimbursing individuals for drug tests than the state saved on screening out an extremely small population (108 of 4,086 TANF applicants). 

I suggest instead of wasting Wisconsin taxpayer dollars on this frivolous lawsuit, the money could be better spent trying to figure out how to help restore food assistance to the seniors in Wisconsin who saw they Food Share payments significantly cut by the 2014 farm bill. This includes seniors like 65 year old Judy Beals of Belleville, a disabled senior who relies on Social Security, who saw her benefit drop from $120 to $16. Governors in other states have stepped up to protect vulnerable citizens from losing access to SNAP benefits. Wisconsin can join them if you so choose. 

Again, I urge you to abandon your attempts to impose a wasteful, unconstitutional, unnecessary, and stigmatizing provision whose only goal is to shame poor people.  

Sincerely,

Gwen Moore