Welfare Drug Testing Bill Awaits Debate

January 25, 2011 | Columbia Daily Tribune |  Link to article

JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri House is ready to debate a proposal to test welfare recipients for drug use while similar bills are working their way through a Senate committee.

Under all the proposals, if a Department of Social Services caseworker finds "reasonable suspicion" that someone on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families is using illegal drugs, he or she can order the person to submit to a drug test. If the person refuses, or if the test comes back positive, the state would cut him or her off cash assistance.

The Senate Health, Mental Health, Seniors and Family Committee held hearings on the proposal today. The House is expected to debate its version tomorrow morning.

Supporters argue the testing is needed to protect children in families receiving TANF, the federal program that in Missouri provides monthly cash payments of $292 for a family of three.

Opponents question whether welfare workers are trained to identify drug use and called for steps to make sure drug treatment is available for those who test positive.

A positive test would take away the adult portion of the payment, or $58 per month. The rest would still go to the family, but it would be handled by a third party to prevent the money from being used on drugs.

The bills would require anyone testing positive be referred to treatment but do not require the state to pay for the treatment or make space available in a treatment program.

Providing drug treatment is not the point of the bill, Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, told the Senate.

"In no way do I want to use this bill to pay for that," he said.

Josh Campbell, lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he questions whether the bill is an attempt to punish poor people.

"Being poor or on TANF doesn't necessarily increase drug use," he said.

Similar bills are under consideration in Virginia, Kentucky and Nebraska. Arizona is the only state that currently requires welfare recipients to undergo drug testing. New applicants must certify that they do not use drugs; those who refuse are denied benefits, said Steve Meissner, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Economic Security. If the applicant admits past drug use, he or she is tested, and if the test is positive, the person is denied benefits, he said.

Michigan attempted to test all welfare recipients several years ago, but the program was struck down by the courts as an intrusion on constitutional rights against search and seizure.

There are few national studies on drug use among welfare recipients. A 2002 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found heavy alcohol use is slightly lower among people on public assistance than in the general population, but drug use is slightly higher.

A 2009 report from the Center for Law and Social Policy called drug testing for welfare recipients an expensive, unreliable way to address substance abuse issues. Testing hurts children, the report said, because it deprives already poor families of needed help.

The House sponsor of the Missouri bill, Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston, said yesterday she doesn't know what the results have been in Arizona. Brandom said the requirement would be a reasonable step to prevent tax money from being diverted for illegal drug purchases.

"Taxpayers are not happy to work hard, hard, hard and to see their tax money going for illegal means," Brandom said.

 

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