Hutchinson Supports Plan To Drug-Test Welfare Recipients

LITTLE ROCK — Critics of Arkansas’ plan to require drug screening and testing of Arkansans who apply for certain public benefits say such programs have been shown to cost more than they save, but Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the legislator who first proposed the idea say cost is not the main issue.

“The objective is not always about savings. It’s also about reducing drug dependency,” Hutchinson told reporters Friday.

Act 1205 of 2015 authorizes the drug screening and testing of people who receive or apply for benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

As originally filed, the legislation called for creation of a two-year pilot program in counties that border any state with drug screening or testing for TANF recipients, but after concerns were raised that targeting only some areas might be unconstitutional, legislators added a line stating, “The pilot program shall include the population statewide as determined by the Department (of Workforce Services).”

Officials said last week that drug screening and testing will be implemented statewide in a matter of days.

The program will not test all TANF applicants. Programs in Michigan and Florida that required testing of all applicants, without suspicion of drug use, have been ruled unconstitutional by federal courts.

The plan calls for questions to be added to Arkansas’ TANF application. If, in the answers to the questions or any other actions, an applicant shows signs of possible illegal drug use, he or she will be asked to submit to a drug test.

A person who refuses to be tested will lose TANF benefits for six months. A person who takes the test and has a positive result for illegal drugs will be referred to a treatment program. The screening and testing program does not pay for the treatment.

If the applicant fails to complete the treatment program or tests positive for illegal drugs after completing it, he or she will be ineligible for TANF benefits for six months. The law allows the person’s family to receive benefits, however.

“We were disappointed to hear about the plan to expand that program because programs like this have such a bad track record in other states,” said Ellie Wheeler, senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

According to a report by the Center for Law and Social Policy, Kansas spent $40,000 over six months in 2014 to screen and test TANF recipients, and in that time 11 people tested positive for illegal drugs

The same report states that Missouri spent $336,297 in 2014 to test TANF recipients, and 48 people tested positive.

According to a report by the National Employment Law Project, Indiana tested 1,240 unemployed applicants for a government training program, and only 13 tested positive. The price tag for the state was $45,000.

“On the surface, it sounds like it would be helping people, or you’d be helping people with their drug abuse problems, but the reality is so few people are actually identified,” Wheeler said.

In these times of tight budgeting it would make more sense to spend money on programs that have been shown to be effective, such as early childhood education and library reading programs for children, Wheeler said.

Hutchinson said Friday, “The objective of this legislation is not to cut people off of a welfare benefit. The objective is to reduce drug dependency in Arkansas.”

The governor said it is appropriate for the Department of Workforce Services to encourage people to end drug dependency and become employable.

“The … objective for TANF or other welfare recipients is to identify those that are drug dependent, get them into treatment — not cut off benefits — get them into treatment and get them back to being productive and working and create work opportunities,” he said.

Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, who sponsored the legislation, said that between 3,000 and 4,000 Arkansans are receiving TANF benefits. He said the drug tests cost just under $70, so it would cost about $245,000 to test everyone in the program, and considerably less to test only those who raise suspicions during the screening.

Typically, fewer than 5 percent are tested in states that have a screening process, Johnson said.

Johnson was asked if he believed the program would be a good use of state money if, say, 11 people tested positive for illegal drugs.

“Absolutely. If it helps those (people) recover, it’s a minimal cost,” he said.

Asked if people might lie on the applications to avoid being identified as possible drug users, Johnson said some likely will and acknowledged that the system is not perfect.

“You can’t legislate morality,” he said.

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