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Welfare drug test proposal continues to be debated


Welfare drug test proposal continues to be debated;
Ohio proposal withdrawn, but more scrutiny likely.

The following article, written by Jackie Borchardt, appeared Saturday, May 19, 2012 in the Dayton Daily News. Read below, or view on DDN's website .

A proposal to drug test welfare recipients has been in the works for more than a year but didn't get much attention in the Statehouse until last week when Republican senators slipped it into the governor's major policy reform bill.

Lawmakers removed the proposal just 24 hours later but said the idea is worth more scrutiny in a separate, standalone bill sponsored by Sen. Tim Schaffer, R-Lancaster. Gov. John Kasich initially withheld from commenting on the proposal but told reporters he supported testing people suspected of drug abuse.

The proposed two-year, three-county pilot program would include participants in the Ohio Works First program, which provides cash benefits to Ohioans who earn no more than 50 percent of the federal poverty level for up to 36 months. The federal poverty level is $19,010 per year for a family of three. Food stamps, housing aid and other federal programs were not included.

One county — Crawford County in north central Ohio — has volunteered to be one of three pilot counties but leaders in other counties say they're eager to see the results in their communities.

Welfare drug test proposal continues to be debated;
Ohio proposal withdrawn, but more scrutiny likely.

The following article, written by Jackie Borchardt, appeared Saturday, May 19, 2012 in the Dayton Daily News. Read below, or view on DDN's website .

A proposal to drug test welfare recipients has been in the works for more than a year but didn't get much attention in the Statehouse until last week when Republican senators slipped it into the governor's major policy reform bill.

Lawmakers removed the proposal just 24 hours later but said the idea is worth more scrutiny in a separate, standalone bill sponsored by Sen. Tim Schaffer, R-Lancaster. Gov. John Kasich initially withheld from commenting on the proposal but told reporters he supported testing people suspected of drug abuse.

The proposed two-year, three-county pilot program would include participants in the Ohio Works First program, which provides cash benefits to Ohioans who earn no more than 50 percent of the federal poverty level for up to 36 months. The federal poverty level is $19,010 per year for a family of three. Food stamps, housing aid and other federal programs were not included.

One county — Crawford County in north central Ohio — has volunteered to be one of three pilot counties but leaders in other counties say they're eager to see the results in their communities.

"We have such a high drug abuse problem and it's common knowledge a lot of food stamps are being traded for drugs," said Doug Wisenhauer, Crawford County commissioner. "It's not fair for the taxpayers to fund their drug habits."

Democrats, social workers and advocates for poor Ohioans said the plan targets a small, already-stigmatized group of people. As of April 2012, there are 166,799 Ohioans — including 16,878 in the Miami Valley — collecting cash assistance, according to the Department of Job and Family Services.

More than 75 percent are children, and women make up 82 percent of the 40,032 adults receiving assistance. The average monthly payment in February was $176 per person or $450 for a family of three.

Ellis Jacobs, an attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality of Dayton, said the drug test plan distracts from the true cause of poverty: the economy has quit working for a significant portion of Ohioans.

"If legislatures are really concerned about people receiving government benefits using drugs then they should insist on testing anyone who has a contact with the government in some way," Jacobs said.

Other states

The idea doesn't have a good track record in court. A lengthy lawsuit over Michigan's welfare drug test pilot ended in 2003 with an agreement that people could not be tested without reasonable suspicion of illegal drug use.

Michigan lawmakers are currently considering another pilot program that requires an initial screening before administering a drug test. The plan would reduce program participation by as much as 3.5 percent and would save $300,000 the first year and up to $1.5 million in subsequent years, according to a legislative analysis.

Florida began testing applicants in 2011 but a U.S. district judge halted the program four months later, finding little evidence that rampant drug abuse exists among recipients and the across-the-board tests violated the Fourth Amendment. Florida spent more reimbursing the 96 percent who tested negative for drugs cost more than it saved by not paying benefits to the 2.6 percent who failed and others who refused to take the test.

Seven states have passed bills to test applicants or recipients in the past two years and at least 28 states have considered legislation in 2012, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The governor of Oklahoma signed off on legislation last week and another bill is on the governor's desk in Tennessee.

Schaffer's bill requires an initial screening for "reasonable cause" to suspect a drug problem and does not reimburse people who pass a urine test for controlled substances, which he said avoids Florida's dilemma. Children whose parents test positive wouldn't be cut off from benefits; a relative or other adults would receive the benefits to spend for the child.

People could regain benefits after six months with the completion of a drug treatment process and a passed drug test. The bill includes $100,000 for treatment programs in the three pilot counties.

"We are learning from their mistakes and making sure this policy, when fully developed, does what is intended — to break the cycle of drug-induced poverty," Schaffer said.

One of many barriers

Rates of drug and alcohol abuse and dependence were not statistically different among those on welfare compared to non-welfare recipients and the U.S. population as a whole, according to a 1996 study by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Kent Youngman, CEO of the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Clark, Greene and Madison Counties, said he understands the sentiment behind wanting to cut public benefits to drug users, but worries lawmakers don't understand how complex the recovery process is.

Youngman said some welfare recipients might face a Catch-22: They need the benefits to maintain a stable recovery, but can't get benefits if they test positive for drug use.

Recovering addicts also need safe, stable housing in order to succeed at their recovery. Without benefits, Youngman said, they won't be able to afford it and are more likely to live with drug users who aren't trying to recover, which endangers their own recovery efforts.