Section 8 Drug Policy: Everything We Know

Section 8 Drug Policy: Everything We Know


Table Of Contents:

Section 8 also known as Housing Choice Voucher is a federal program for assisting low-income families with affordable housing solutions in the United States. The program is funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide decent, safe, and sanitary housing to eligible families.

Beneficiaries are allowed to choose their own housing and may include single-family homes, townhouses, and apartments. Housing Choice Vouchers are administered by public housing agencies (PHAs) who implement the program locally. The PHAs help the participating family by paying a housing subsidy to the landlord directly. The family only pays the difference between actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the PHAs.

Access to housing assistance programs are subject to drug screening, testing, and criminal background checks for drug related offenses. Individuals who test positive for a controlled substance would be denied housing assistance, and barred from participating in a housing assistance program for twelve months or until they have completed a treatment program. Under this circumstance passing a new drug testing is required.

Who will be tested and why?

Welfare recipients are increasingly being drug tested as a condition of eligibility for housing assistance. The ‘Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients Act’ also known as the ‘H.R.2179 (115th) Bill’ required individuals to pass a drug test to receive housing assistance. Other welfare programs such as cash assistance under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and food assistance under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, and Unemployment Insurance (UI) have similarly proposed and introduced drug testing policies under their fold.

Proponents of drug screening and testing of welfare recipients attribute drug abuse as a major cause of their poverty. They proclaim that low income families are more likely to abuse on illicit substances than those with higher incomes. Drug testing based on suspicion on welfare recipients has been undertaken in the past by PHA agencies with the intention to deter the abuse of alcohol and other controlled substances. Housing assistance for such individuals and low income households has been restricted.

Section 8 drug test and substances tested

The H.R.2179 (115th) bill was introduced in 2017 by representative David Rouzer with the purpose of denying federal funded benefits to individuals and low income families who fail a drug test. The concerned PHAs shall determine that the individual eligible for the program has not been arrested during the 5-year period preceding the receipt of welfare assistance. In addition, the PHAs must also conduct substance screening and testing to identify beneficiaries who do not have a high risk of abuse to drugs.

Failing a drug test prohibits an individual from enjoying any housing assistance. Correspondingly, housing assistance is disbursed based on the number of family members who remain eligible for the program excluding the individual who failed the drug test. The cost of screening and testing are covered by the respective PHAs from the amounts made available under the public housing funds.

Substances categorized as controlled substances include all substances regulated under the ‘Controlled Substances Act’ into one of the five schedules. The use and detection of any illicit substance under the list of controlled substances, unless it is authorized by law or used with a valid prescription, disqualifies an individual from taking any benefits provided by the Housing Voucher program.

Drug testing welfare recipients as a condition of eligibility

Drug testing welfare recipients as a condition of eligibility for federal funded programs such as TANF, SNAP, and Section 8 HCV has come under increasing criticism. Foremost, there is little to support the claim that low income families are more vulnerable to drug abuse and addiction. For instance, the proportion between welfare and non-welfare recipients using illicit drugs is measurably insignificant.

In 2014, the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that Florida’s suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients was unconstitutional. The search of Section 8 applicants without evidence of a more prevalent and unique drug abuse problem than in the general population was ruled to be unreasonable and fundamental violation of the Fourth Amendment which secures an individual from unreasonable searches, sand seizures of property.

Furthermore, the average cost of drug testing involving drug screening and testing, legal fees and settlement has been financially exacting without any considerable justification to continue drug testing welfare recipients. Drug testing is expensive as illustrated by costs of testing amongst both private and government employees.

The study by ‘The American Civil Liberties Union’ estimated the cost of drug testing in one private workplace to be $20,000 after testing around 10,000 employees with only 49 positive cases. Similarly, the cost of each positive drug test of government employees was estimated to be $77,000 with the positive rate hovering as low as 0.5%.

The Takeaway

Drug testing welfare recipients for access to housing benefits is rife with contention. Individuals who test positive for a controlled substance are denied housing assistance, and barred from participating in a housing assistance program such as Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher.

The principal aim of drug testing is to deter the use of illicit drugs and encourage treatment and recovery among abusers of controlled substances. However, drug testing as a condition of eligibility for Section 8 housing benefits may actually hinder people to obtain treatment as disclosure of substance use disorder may potentially mean losing of benefits.

More and more states are coming forward and scrapping drug testing for applicants of welfare programs. The H.R.2179 (115th) bill passed in 2017 was eventually brought down in 2019 as it failed to garner public support and validation. Drug testing welfare recipients is also not consistent across programs which lead to confusion. The tide of policy changes with regard to drug testing of welfare benefits illustrates the tension that exists between drug testing as deterrent and welfare programs to support needy families.

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