States consider drug testing welfare recipients

USA TODAY, March 2, 2012

By Yamiche Alcindor

Getting welfare and food stamps may become tougher as 23 states around the USA seek to adopt stricter laws that would require public aid recipients to take drug tests.

Florida law now requires all aid applicants to be drug tested while Arizona and Missouri require testing for anyone they “reasonably” suspect of illegal drug use.

For many, the proposed changes in states such as Wyoming, Illinois and Maryland will mean taking extra steps before receiving aid, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Resistance is likely to be heated, and the American Civil Liberties Union has already filed a challenge in Florida.

In Colorado, state Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg is sponsoring a bill that would require applicants for his state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to pay for and pass a drug test before getting government help.

“If you have enough money to be able to buy drugs, then you don’t need the public assistance,” he said. “I don’t want tax dollars spent on drugs.”

Those who pass would be reimbursed for the test, which costs between $8 and $12, while those who fail would have to get clean and reapply, Sonnenberg said.

Sponsors and supporters of many drug testing bills say the rules are intended to help people stay healthy, avoid substance abuse problems and eliminate fraud.

Opposition has already begun. In Florida, the ACLU is challenging a law passed last year that requires drug testing of welfare recipients. Jason Williamson, an attorney in the organization’s Criminal Law Reform Project, said the ACLU is “against any kind of suspicionless drug testing of any population.”

He says such laws unfairly stigmatize people receiving public assistance and could lead governments down a “slippery slope” where other recipients of government dollars such as college students, veterans and contractors could be subject to drug testing or other screening.

He added that the proposed laws inaccurately suggest that people on welfare use drugs more than others.

“This exemplifies the extent to which folks are willing to scapegoat poor people when it suits political interests,” Williamson said. “Subjecting people who are receiving public benefits to government intrusion, and the singling out of poor people in this country under the guise of saving money is worrisome to us.”

Across the nation, lawmakers have proposed legislation to implement asset limits for food-stamp recipients, longer waiting periods for welfare benefits and mandatory substance abuse counseling for people receiving housing assistance.

Other ways welfare rules may change:

•At least 10 states are considering bills that would require photo identification for food stamps or electronic benefit cards.

•At least two states — Ohio and Tennessee — are considering restricting or eliminating eligibility for those convicted of drug felonies.

•At least two states —North Carolina and New Jersey— are considering requiring people to perform community service to receive government help.