Weeding them out
Only about 5 percent of all people — including welfare recipients — use drugs. But two Washington lawmakers are intent on finding them
To apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a family of three must make less than $950 a month, document their income and assets, and go through a series of interviews with a social worker to create an employment plan that could include education, job training and drug addiction treatment.
The process can take a month or more.
Now, Republicans in Olympia want to require TANF applicants to submit to a drug test if the applicant’s caseworker suspects the person is using any illegal drugs or marijuana. This is on top of an existing drug screening all applicants already undergo.
Sponsors of the bill say it will keep money meant to clothe and house children from being used to buy illegal drugs.
Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, and Sen. Tom Benton, R-Vancouver, introduced companion bills in January.
“We want to make sure the children and family are being fed and that we’re not feeding a drug habit,” Angel said, adding that employers often require drug testing, so why shouldn’t the state?
Opponents say the legislation is unnecessary, expensive, redundant and unfair, stereotyping poor people as drug users.
“This bill proposes a solution that is in search of a problem,” said Kate Baber of the Statewide Poverty Action Network.
A national trend
Drug use among TANF recipients is low. TANF programs in other states have not shown significant abuse of welfare checks, and often spend more to conduct the drug tests than is saved by weeding out drug users.
Drug testing is also expensive. Although Angel’s bill estimates tests will cost $9 each, urinalysis typically runs $20 to $40 per test. States that have already implemented such drug testing have spent thousands but failed to find more people using drugs.
During a four-month period in 2011, before the law was challenged in court, Florida drug-tested all TANF applicants. Of the 4,000 people tested, only 108 tested positive.
But drug testing for TANF is a trend with momentum. Washington’s proposal is just the latest in three years of similar legislation nationwide, said Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a national organization that studies federal and state laws on taxing and social services.
Schott said the idea appeals to many voters.
“It is an attractive sound bite,” she said. But, she said, it’s not effective in addressing substance abuse nor is it a good use of limited TANF resources.
According to the Congressional Research Service, which provides studies and data to Congress, 19 states have some sort of drug testing or screening law in place for random applicants to the TANF program, suspected drug users or convicted felons. Fifteen other states are considering similar laws this year.
Despite the scrutiny the program’s applicants have received, TANF recipients are no more likely to use drugs than the rest of the population. Studies cited by the Congressional Research Service show that somewhere between 4 and 10 percent of TANF clients use illicit drugs, about the same rate as the general population.
Some see drug testing of TANF as harmful. At a hearing at the State Senate Feb. 14, Carol Mullens of Jewish Family Services said it equates poor people with drug users.
It also adds another hurdle to the already lengthy TANF application process, Schott said. Already, people who are eligible don’t receive benefits, she said.
TANF has always had a high bar for applicants.
When the federal government created the program in 1996, lawmakers built in safeguards against abuse of the benefit, including allowing states to implement drug tests and ban convicted felons from applying.
This was 20 years after Ronald Reagan coined the term “welfare queen” as a caricature of a woman living large off the backs of taxpayers.
Now, fewer and fewer people even receive what little TANF funding is available. In 1996, about two-thirds of the population living below the poverty line received TANF assistance. Now there are 10 million more poor people, but only a third receive assistance.
As part of the current requirements to receive assistance in Washington, social workers ask the applicants a series of questions and look for signs of a drug problem.
If there’s any indication of illegal drug use, the applicant has to see a licensed chemical dependency professional for an assessment and treatment plan.
Under Angel’s proposal, the social worker will question clients the same way and require them to get a drug test before going for an assessment and treatment.
In 2011, the state sent fewer than 5 percent of clients in for that type of treatment.
Weighing the ‘evidence’
At the public hearing Feb. 14, Angel laid out her case for the law. While on the campaign trail, she met a young woman whose husband became addicted to oxycontin. He left the family, and she was afraid of not being able to feed her kids. TANF, she said, should do the drug testing to find those people and get them into treatment so their children don’t lose the support they need.
“We want to make sure the children and the family are being fed and that we’re not feeding a drug habit,” Angel said.
Unfortunately, Angel’s example was just a woman she met on the campaign trail and not a TANF client. She and Benton, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, could offer no examples or data to show that people are using TANF money for drugs.
Benton, however, is convinced that it’s happening.
“I think there is evidence,” Benton said. “Other states are passing these laws, and they’re not just doing it on a gut feeling.”
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