Jeff Gentner/AP
Del. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, W.Va.

Some States May Require Random Drug Tests for People Receiving Public Assistance

March 28, 2009 08:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
Some states propose cutting public assistance benefits for drug users. Will mandatory drug tests become law?

Welfare and Drug Abuse

As the number of people receiving welfare, food stamps and unemployment compensation increases, the state legislatures of West Virginia and at least 7 other states are proposing legislation requiring recipients to take random drug tests.

December 2008 saw as many as 31.7 million Americans on food stamps, up from 27.5 million the previous year, The Associated Press reported.

Those in favor of such bills argue they are thinking of the well-being of their fellow citizens, but they also believe in tough love; their message, according to the AP, is: “you don’t get something for nothing.”

Craig Blair, a Republican in the West Virginia Legislature, designed a Web site, NotWithMyTaxDollars.com, to back his views. According to the AP, Blair said, “Nobody’s being forced into these assistance programs.” He added, “If so many jobs require random drug tests these days, why not these benefits?”

According to the bill, published on Blair’s Web site, if a welfare applicant or recipient fails the first drug test, he or she will be required to take another within a 30-60 day period. “Failing to submit to the drug test (if selected), or twice failing the drug test results in the applicant/recipient being ineligible for assistance for a period of two years from the date the Commissioner denies/deems ineligible the applicant/recipient.”

On March 25, Kansas’ House of Representatives passed a bill requiring anyone receiving cash assistance to submit to drug testing. It is now waiting for senate approval, the AP reports.

The AP also reported that the Oklahoma Senate passed a bill in February obligating all recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to submit to drug tests. Lawmakers in Missouri and Hawaii have advised similar measures. Florida is weighing a senator’s proposal targeting recipients of unemployment payments and the Minnesota House of Representatives is contemplating testing those receiving public assistance.

While Idaho has seen a 30 percent increase in food stamp usage, its state legislators are not pursuing tighter policies. Tom Shanahan, public relations representative of Idaho Health and Welfare, told television station KPVI “I don’t think people want to see anyone, especially families with children, going to bed hungry at night.”

On March 26, The Associated Press reported that church, labor and health organizations in West Virginia began a petition condemning the new bill. According to the AP, “The letter is signed by representatives of groups ranging from the state AFL-CIO to the West Virginia Catholic Conference and the Mental Health Consumers Association.”

Background: Welfare reform in the Clinton era

The Clinton administration overhauled the welfare system in August of 1996. Formerly a federal issue, public assistance became the responsibility of individual states. After two years recipients of welfare had to be employed. Clinton’s system also allowed states “family caps” limiting the support a mother received for a child that was born after the mother had already been receiving benefits. The Washington Post provides a comprehensive summary outlining these changes.

Opinion & Analysis: Right to privacy?

The author of an editorial in the Panama City News Herald understands the need to scale back the welfare state without encroaching on one’s individual freedoms. The News Herald argues, the government, via showboating lawmakers, frequently claims to be serving the taxpayer, but “[this] is all the excuse it needs to extend its reach into people’s private lives.” It adds, “[W]hy not rely on old-fashioned due process?”, suggesting that the state cut benefits only for people who are found guilt of drug offenses.

Related Topic: “Couple Resists Latest Attempt to Legislate Social Behavior”

In January, Rebecca Witt and Gary Johnson fought Michigan’s paternity act, which
required the couple to marry in order to get state assistance in paying for their medical bills. “I don’t think anybody has a right to tell anyone who they have to marry or when they have to get married,” Witt said.

In 2007, New York City began a privately funded demonstration program that incentivized 5,000 families to engage in good behavior, such as having good school attendance, getting a library card, visiting the doctor and opening a savings account.

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