SADOW: Louisiana Should At Long Last Begin Drug-Testing Welfare Recipients

Despite meeting the derision of some in the past, trends across the country point to the desirability of Louisiana’s joining other states in requiring drug testing for cause of welfare cash recipients.

Since a U.S. circuit court of appeals decision over a decade ago essentially ruled that drug testing to receive federal benefits constituted an unconstitutional search unless suspicion of use was established, a dozen states have passed laws that require such testing when suspicion is present. That can be established as simply as administering a test that queries about behavior. Additionally, most states, including Louisiana where this applies to benefits administered by the Department of Children and Family Services (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), have not opted out of the federal welfare reform law that requires felons convicted of drug crimes to face mandatory testing for receipt of benefits, and 18 have had legislation to adopt testing introduced in the past year. Perhaps the most high profile discussion under way will happen in Wisconsin, where the political left’s bête noire Gov. Scott Walker, a potential presidential candidate, supports such legislation that includes a wide array of public assistance programs.

Louisiana is not one of those that has gone past the TANF rules, but has its own history regarding such legislation. A few years ago bills of this nature appeared regularly in the Legislature, with the last couple of attempts making it out of the House. But the Senate stalled them and 2012 marked the last bill filed of this nature.

Critics often derided such bills as demeaning to those applying for public assistance and/or too expensive. But they clearly are constitutional and serve the public interest in preventing those who have a substance abuse problem from using taxpayer proceeds to fuel that habit, and for those with dependents to prevent them from using on the habit public dollars intended for the benefit of these others. The last bill so offered would have tested (urine samples) randomly (to overcome the suspicion barrier) a fifth of Family Independence Temporary Assistance Program (in other words, cash benefits) adult recipients, costing then about an estimated $129,000 a year.

In tight budgetary times even this amount of money from a $25 billion budget is a significant commitment. However, the bill also included treatment which was about $100,000 of the cost. Further, a new version could cover only applicants (which eventually would mean all potential recipients, since FITAP allows only a maximum of 24 consecutive months within five years).

Using screening exam to identify those whose behavioral patterns would not cost much, with the suspected users then invited to provide a urine sample or given the option to decline to apply and be allowed to re-apply in 30 days. Those who returned a positive test could not reapply for a year unless completing a treatment program. This way, users who fear at the time of initial application being caught could have at least 30 days to clean up before applying again.

If applied only to FITAP recipients with the average benefit a month for that program then being $189, if $200 today and the 7,249 adult recipients registered in fiscal year 2011 remained about the same annually, and assuming one in 40 tested positive or opted out of the physical sampling and because of that could not draw benefits for at least three months, this would save at least $108,600 of taxpayer money annually. Better, it would provide incentives to drive down the 2.5 percent failure rate seen elsewhere that would save less money but direct people to get their lives in order to theirs and their dependents’ benefits.

In the final analysis, this kind of program won’t save a whole lot of the people’s money. Yet the real benefit comes from the state promoting positive behavior among a set of people whose very reason for being unable to support themselves and their families may well stem from a drug habit. For that reason alone, in this upcoming legislative session Louisiana should join many other states and pass such a law.

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