February 14, 2013 in City

Welfare benefits may be tied to drug testing

Hearing to be held on proposed requirement
Rachel La Corte Associated Press
 

OLYMPIA – A measure modeled on a new Utah law would add a potential drug testing requirement to those seeking family welfare benefits in Washington state, but would allow them to continue receiving money while seeking treatment as long as they stay drug-free.

The bill will have its first public hearing before a Senate committee today. It would require applicants whom case workers have determined have a drug problem to undergo a drug test and participate in a treatment program to receive the monthly cash grant that is part of the state’s temporary assistance for needy families program, known as TANF.

“I think taxpayers want to make darn sure the money is going for groceries for the kids and not for dope,” said Sen. Don Benton, a Republican from Vancouver who is sponsoring the Senate bill. “I think the taxpayers have a right to confirm that.”

Though the numbers vary year by year, as of June, between 121,000 and 134,000 people received an average monthly payment of $373 through TANF. To be eligible, applicants must either have a child or be pregnant and meet certain income requirements. For example, a family of three that has earnings of less than $955 each month would be eligible for cash assistance from TANF.

Washington is among nearly two dozen states that have introduced bills this year to require some form of drug testing for public assistance recipients, according to Rochelle Finzel with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Seven states have such laws on the books, but some that have passed blanket welfare drug-testing laws have faced legal challenges amid constitutional concerns.

Florida passed a welfare drug-testing program in 2011, but it’s on hold after a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is reviewing the case. The implementation of a law passed by Georgia last year also is on hold, with officials there saying they’re awaiting the outcome of the Florida case.

Additional states require individuals with felony drug convictions to comply with drug testing requirements to be eligible for assistance. Others, including Washington state, have an interview screening process that does not include a drug test, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Republican Rep. Jan Angel of Port Orchard has introduced a companion bill to the Senate measure in the House. Because of the constitutional issues raised in other states, Angel modeled her bill on the measure approved last year in Utah, which requires drug tests only for those shown through a questionnaire to have a “reasonable likelihood” that they’re using drugs.

As in the Washington state measure, applicants in Utah who fail the test can continue receiving benefits while seeking treatment. Utah’s law took effect in August.

“I look at this as two sides of a coin,” Angel said. “Help the family be able to meet their needs and feed their children, and get help to the person who needs it because of the drug addiction.”

Currently, the state Department of Social and Health Services determines during a face-to-face interview whether an applicant has a drug or alcohol problem. If so, the applicant is given a referral they must attend where a determination on treatment is decided.

If the applicant fails to follow up with the referral or treatment plan, they receive reduced benefits for up to four months, during which time case managers continue to work with them. If they still don’t comply after four months, their benefits are terminated.

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