Thu, Oct 13, 2011 - Page 14 News List

States add drug test as a hurdle for welfare

Advocates for the poor say that drug testing policies in the US single out and vilify the victims of the recession

By A.G. Sulzberger  /  NY Times News Service, Kansas City, Missouri

Photo: Bloomberg

As more Americans turn to government programs for refuge from a merciless economy, a growing number are encountering a new price of admission to the social safety net: a urine sample.

Policymakers in three dozen states this year proposed drug testing for people receiving benefits like welfare, unemployment assistance, job training, food stamps and public housing. Such laws, which proponents say ensure that tax dollars are not being misused and critics say reinforce stereotypes about the poor, have passed in states including Arizona, Indiana and Missouri.

In Florida, people receiving cash assistance through welfare have had to pay for their own drug tests since July, and enrollment has shrunk to its lowest levels since the start of the recession. The law, the most far-reaching in the nation, provoked a lawsuit last month from the American Civil Liberties Union arguing that the requirement represents an unreasonable search and seizure.

The flood of proposals across the country, enabled by the strength of Republicans in many state houses and driven by a desire to cut government spending, recall the politics of the 1980s and 1990s, when higher rates of drug abuse and references to “welfare queens” led to policies aimed at ensuring that public benefits were not spent to support addiction.

Supporters of the policies note 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 Ellen Brandom, a Republican state representative in Missouri.

The past three years, she sponsored legislation requiring testing of welfare recipients, and her bill was signed by Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, in July.

Advocates for the poor say the drug testing policies single out and vilify the 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 waiting lists for treatment.

At Operation Breakthrough, which provides day care services to low-income women here in Kansas City, Nicole, 22, who asked to be identified only by her first name, began to cry as she described trying to provide for her three children on a monthly welfare check of US$342, plus US$642 in food stamps.

Her electricity was cut off that morning, she said, which meant she could be evicted from her subsidized housing. The struggle to make ends meet while pursuing a healthcare degree was so consuming that the idea of taking drugs seemed ridiculous, she added.

Kimberley Davis, the director of social services for Operation Breakthrough, said the legislation sent a bad message.

“All this does is perpetuate the stereotype that low-income people are lazy, shiftless drug addicts and if all they did was pick themselves up from the bootstraps then the country wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in,” Davis said.

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.

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