Welfare-related drug tests prove controversialBy Jared Downing | 10/23/2011 11:02pm
Legislators across the nation proposed drug testing this year as a new hurdle for welfare benefits. Now, the state of Alabama may follow suit.
According to a report by the Associated Press, Alabama lawmakers may have a bill in the works that will mimic drug-testing legislation Florida legislators passed this year, which requires welfare candidates to pass a drug test before they can receive cash benefits from the state.
Rep. Scott Beason and other supporters of such a bill argue that Alabama tax dollars shouldn’t pay for narcotics. Cliff Sims, president of UA College Republicans, agrees.
“I think at the end of the day, the American people are okay with helping people who have fallen on hard times, but they’re not okay with funding someone’s drug habit,” Sims said.
College Democrats President Jamie Woodham said the bill would create yet another barrier between government assistance and those who really need it.
“Adding another hurdle for the people who need the benefits the most would be an unnecessary burden for them,” Woodham said. “Families and children would be the ones hit hardest.”
The bill would affect Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a program designed to aid families with children that gives temporary income supplements to more than 19,000 families across Alabama, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.
Lucinda Roff, professor of social work, said mandatory drug testing would come from misguided assumptions about the relationship between poverty and drug use.
“It’s driven from a stereotype that there are more drug users among poor people than anyone else,” Roff said. “Not too many people become poor because of a drug habit.”
Indeed, since mandating drug testing Florida has seen a fail rate of just two percent, according to a report by Tampa Bay Online.
Roff said if drug use isn’t any higher among the poor than other socioeconomic classes, there’s no reason to single out TANF over student loans, mortgage tax deductions, or any other government benefit.
Sims said that while drug use may not differ between rich and poor, such a program would be just one step toward a much-needed accountability for recipients of any government benefit.
But one of the biggest questions is whether a drug testing policy would be worth it.
Florida’s policy requires welfare candidates to pay for their own drug tests, which cost around $40. But Alabama’s TANF candidates are among the poorest in the state; to qualify, a single parent’s earnings can’t exceed $3,228 a year, reports NCCP.
According to Roff, even a seemingly small fee would be a tremendous financial burden for TANF families.
“Imagine yourself: You have no money, you can’t afford the rent payment, you can’t pay for food,” she said. “What that’s going to do is make it almost impossible to apply for a benefit you need for your family.”
Florida’s program reimburses the cost of the test to those who pass, but critics claim this just passes the check to the taxpayer. Tampa Bay Online reported that Florida’s program will save just $40,800 to $98,400 from rejected applicants, which Roff argued would not nearly cover the cost of implementing the program and footing the bill for those who pass the test.
Even with the cost, Sims said transparency is crucial any time the government aids those who have fallen on hard times.
“I think there are valid reasons people should be helped,” he said. “If they don’t want to take the drug test, that’s their right, but they shouldn’t get the benefits.”