Monday, April 22, 2013

Opponents of drug testing for welfare benefits see it as hassling the poor; Brownback says it will help

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

By next year, applicants for welfare and unemployment benefits who are suspected of taking illegal drugs will be tested, and if they fail the test they will lose their benefits.

Some groups see this as mean-spirited hassling of the poor, but Gov. Sam Brownback and supporters of the new law say it will help break the cycle of poverty because those who fail will be required to take substance abuse and jobs training.

"Drug addiction is a scourge in Kansas. This is a horrific thing that hits so many people," Brownback said. "What this effort is about is an attempt to get ahead of it. And instead of ignoring the problem, is to start treating the problem."

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, who shepherded the bill through the Legislature, described the measure as "family-friendly, family-focused."

On the welfare side, the law deals with those who receive cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, which is federally funded and administered by the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

Those suspected of drug use and who fail the drug test will be required to complete programs for substance abuse and job skills paid for by the state. If they fail a second time, cash assistance is terminated for one year.

If they fail a third time, they would no longer be eligible for benefits.

There are provisions in the law to steer payments through another person to ensure that a child's benefits are continued.

And starting July 1, a first-time offender convicted of a drug offense will be ineligible for cash assistance for five years.

Brownback, King and Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore described the law as a way to help Kansans with drug problems get back on track and become employable.

But those with alcohol problems will not be affected by the law. People who lose their jobs through no fault of their own but use drugs could be denied benefits.

And the cost of drug testing, treatment and job-training programs will come from the TANF program.

"I think that is a fantastic use of public assistance dollars and will benefit all Kansans in the long run," King said.

Currently, 22,000 people receive TANF. In 2012, TANF expenditures totaled $42.1 million in Kansas, and the average payment was $282 per month.

But Holly Weatherford, program director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri, said the measure was unfair.

"We shouldn't require poor people to surrender their privacy so they can obtain enough money for the basic necessities of life," Weatherford said.

The proliferation of such bills across the nation is prompted by the false assumption that people receiving benefits are rampant users of illegal drugs, she said.

When a Florida law requiring drug testing of welfare recipients was blocked by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Circuit Judge Rosemary Barkett stated, "There is nothing inherent to the condition of being impoverished that supports the conclusion that there is a 'concrete danger' that impoverished individuals are prone to drug use."

But unlike the Kansas law, Florida's requires all welfare applicants take a drug test, instead of only those with a "reasonable suspicion" of drug use.

Weatherford said the ACLU will be watching closely as Kansas implements rules and regulations and starts to administer the new law.