John Florez: Drug testing welfare clients wastes tax dollars

Published: Saturday, Aug. 4 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In 2009, the late state Sen. Dennis Stowell wondered why the idea of drug testing welfare recipients, that he had suggested months earlier, was still being brought up. When first suggested, he said it was to see if people on welfare could be helped with their drug problem and find a job. He thought, with limited state funds, it could not be done at the time. He said, "It's hard enough for anyone to find a job these days."

Three years later, the Utah legislature passed HB155 requiring all welfare applicants to be drug tested in order to receive assistance. Those that refuse could be banned from receiving help. It's estimated 5 to 10 percent of welfare population are drug dependent, which is comparable to the general population. So, why is the state creating a costly drug testing industry to allegedly assist recipients to get drug treatment when such a small percentage may be using drugs? Forcing them to get treatment in programs that are not readily available in the state, and try to get jobs that don't exist is like the dog chasing the car. What does he do with it when he catches it?

Utah Department of Workforce Services (DWS) is now requiring all welfare (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF) applicants to be screened for illegal drug use and forced to receive drug treatment if a test is found to be positive. However, that's what they are already supposed to be doing in the intake process.

Federal law says that states may drug test welfare recipients, leaving it up to the states how to do it. In a September 2011 brief by Health and Human Services, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) estimates that operating the program could include: purchasing the drug tests; laboratory fees; staff time to administer the tests, monitor compliance and eligibility; deal with increased administrative hearings; and modify computer programs to include drug testing ineligibility, substance abuse treatment and legal fees if the law is challenged.

How cost effective is it for the state to start a bureaucracy to do drug testing that could run in to the millions? According to ASPE, for some states that have implemented the program for testing — 20 percent of the recipients — the costs range from $92,487 to $20 million.

The Utah Legislature that mandated the testing seems short sighted in not considering the consequences in passing this law. Where is the taxpayer's interest considered? Will the law help welfare recipients become self-sufficient? How will this promote strong families and the healthy development of infants and children if the parent is punished or taken out of the home to find any job? What if the parent refuses treatment? If so, the state could ban recipients from further assistance. Rep. Brad Wilson, sponsor of HB155, said recipients would be on their own. Furthermore, parents who may be fearful of having a positive drug test might choose to refuse assistance, which may leave their children in jeopardy.

The TANF program that requires the parent to try to find a job ignores the importance of early child development and the social and health consequences of such a policy — child neglect, teen pregnancy, delinquency to name a few. It's naive to believe the state can expect a mother with limited skills to find a job in today's economy when skilled adults can't find one.

The Legislature should carefully consider the cost of creating a whole industry and a bureaucracy of drug screening that DWS is already doing. Citizens should expect more enlightened policies that promote strong families. Stowell had it right.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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