SALT LAKE CITY — A new state program requiring drug screening for welfare applicants has saved more than $350,000 in its first year, officials said.
Preliminary data show Utah spent more than $30,000 from August 2012 to July 2013 to screen welfare applicants for drug use, but only found 12 people who tested positive.
Supporters of the program are pointing to about 250 people who failed to meet drug screening requirements during the year and were barred from receiving or applying for benefits for three months.
Those people would have otherwise received more than $350,000 in benefits, according to the state Department of Workforce Services, which administers the welfare program and the drug screening.
"The whole purpose is to get people back to work," said Rep. Brad Wilson, a Kaysville Republican who crafted the screening law. "We can't get them back to work if they refuse to get into the program and do what they need to do."
Opponents of the policy say it unfairly stigmatizes poor people.
"There is this notion that if you're struggling to find employment, it must be because you're using drugs," said Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger and a longtime activist seeking a welfare overhaul.
Utah is one of at least eight states that have passed legislation requiring drug testing or screening for public assistance applicants. Similar laws were proposed in at least 29 states this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In other states, the policies have faced legal challenges over claims they violate protections against searches without probable cause.
Utah, which does not randomly target applicants or require all applicants to undergo a drug test, has not faced such a challenge.
Instead, applicants to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program must complete a written questionnaire designed to screen for substance abuse. Drugs tests are then performed on those rated as having a high probability of using drugs.
Utah's law also doesn't disqualify people who test positive from receiving benefits. Instead, it requires them to enter substance abuse treatment.
The policy is not based on assumption that a large population of welfare applicants use drugs, Wilson said.
"But if we can help the 10 percent or so that are challenged with this, why wouldn't we?" he said.
The law identifies those with drug issues early on in the process, and if they aren't willing to get help or meet the requirements, they shouldn't get benefits, Wilson said.
The operating assumption is that people abandoned the process because they have a substance abuse issue, Wilson said, but that's something policy makers would like to dig into more.
The next step, Wilson said, "is to find out why those 250 people would rather not get benefits and keep using drugs, and what we can do to maybe help them realize that is a poor choice."
There's no information about why those 250 people failed to meet the requirements, so it's a leap to assume they all had drug issues, Cornia said.
If Utah is serious about addressing barriers to employment, the state should be just "as vigilant and committed" to much more common struggles that applicants face, such as mental health problems, a lack of training or literacy or domestic violence issues, Cornia said.
"We need to genuinely address all the barriers — not just the ones that are politically popular," she said.
Follow Michelle L. Price on Twitter at http://twitter.com/michellelprice