Category: Your Voice Published on Tuesday, 29 January 2013 11:30 Written by Zack Burgess
As the economy slogs along and more Americans have to receive some form of government assistance, they could be facing one more hurdle as they look to feed themselves and their families: a urine sample.
Not cool if you ask me. But for some reason it keeps coming up.
“If you have enough money to be able to buy drugs, then you don’t need the public assistance,” said Colorado state representative Jerry Sonnenberg in March after sponsoring a welfare drug testing bill. “I don’t want tax dollars spent on drugs.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states considered drug testing for recipients of cash assistance from the major welfare program in 2011, including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program signed into legislation under President Bill Clinton.
There were 12 states that proposed it for unemployment insurance; and some also considered making it a requirement for food stamps, home heating assistance and other programs. Supporters of the policies argue that public assistance is meant to be transitional and that drug tests are increasingly common requirements for getting jobs.
“Working people today work very hard to make ends meet, and it just doesn’t seem fair to them that their tax dollars go to support illegal things,” said state Rep. Ellen Brandom (R-Missouri), to The New York Times.
Advocates for the poor say the testing policies single out and vilify victims of the recession, disputing the idea that people on public assistance are more likely to use drugs. They also warn that to the extent that testing programs were successful in blocking some people from receiving benefits, the inability to get money for basic needs would aggravate drug addictions and increase demand for treatment.
Many states have already established ways to prevent people with known drug problems from receiving benefits — about 20 states prohibit unemployment payments for anyone who lost a job because of drug use, and more than a dozen states refuse welfare payments to anyone convicted of a drug felony.
But, as tight state budgets have raised concern about government spending and fostered impatience with aid to the poor, these efforts have gone further. Some point to federal statistics showing that unemployed adults are about twice as likely as employed adults to have used drugs in the previous month.
"The message of this bill is simple: Oklahomans should not have their taxes used to fund illegal drug activity,” said state Rep. Guy Liebmann (R-Oklahoma City) in a statement on the passage of his welfare drug testing bill in the state House. "Benefit payments that have been wasted on drug abusers will be available for the truly needy as a result of this bill, and addicts will be incentivized to get treatment."
Liebmann also struck another frequently-hit note – a moral claim that such bills were necessary even if they didn't save taxpayer dollars. "Even if it didn't save a dime, this legislation would be worth enacting based on principle," he said. "Law-abiding citizens should not have their tax payments used to fund illegal activity that puts us all in danger."
This month Republican lawmakers in three states said they will introduce legislation that would require welfare recipients to undergo drug testing in order to receive benefits.
The Ohio State Senate held a second hearing in early December on a proposal to establish pilot drug-testing programs in three counties. Under the proposal, applicants would be required to submit a drug test if they disclose that they have used illegal substances. The proposal was first introduced in the spring, but pressure from opponents led Gov. John Kasich to squash the bill in May.
Virginia Republicans are also reviving a bill that was shelved earlier this year. The 2012 version failed after the state estimated it would cost $1.5 million to implement while only saving $229,000. The bill’s sponsor, Delegate Dickie Bell, has not introduced the updated version yet, but says he’s found more cost effective options.
In Florida, Republicans found similar results when they enacted the drug testing requirement for welfare recipients. The plan, which was touted as a cost-saving measure, turned out to be so expensive that it ultimately cost the state an additional $45,780–even after savings from benefits that were denied to applicants who failed the tests. The measure failed to move forward in part because only 2.6% of applicants did not pass the test–a rate three times lower than the percentage of estimated of illegal drug users in Florida. The law has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge since October.
A third drug testing bill is being in floated in Kansas where the rhetoric used to justify the policy focuses less on the potential costs, and more on the desire to help rehabilitate addicts. Republican State Senate Vice President Jeff King, who predicts the legislation will be passed this year, said the law is not intended to be punitive, adding, “If folks test positive, we need to help them get help and help them get the job skills they need to kick the habit to get a job and keep a job.”
“It really speaks to how the politics of the moment are dominating the policy conversation in the virtual absence of any evidence,” said Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago whose research has indicated that people on welfare used drugs at rates similar to the general population.
Unfortunately, African Americans may be particularly be impacted more than the rest of the population…for several reasons.
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