Debate revived over Pa. drug testing for welfare recipients
A bill introduced by state Sen. John Wozniak would require drug testing of all recipients and applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in Pennsylvania.
This sort of proposal resurfaces periodically.
Wozniak, D-Johnstown, did not return a request for comment but supporters say the tests could have the dual function of helping dispel stereotypes about welfare recipients while saving the state money.
But Sen. Shirley Kitchen, D-Philadelphia, considers the proposal, now before the Senate's Committee on Public Health and Welfare, discriminatory.
"Lots of people get taxpayer money and we don't make them take drug tests," she points out.
The state's Department of Public Welfare has an ongoing pilot program in 19 counties of testing only those convicted of felony drug offenses, says spokeswoman Anne Bale.
"Certainly the department, at this point, supports drug testing recipients because we are administering a pilot program," she said. "We certainly want to work with anyone who supports this."
Since January of 2012, 91 recipients and applicants have been tested. Two have failed. Current recipients who fail the test have their benefits suspended for six months to a year. Repeat offenders lose them entirely.
Bale says the requirement may have dissuaded some drug users from applying for aid at all.
Amy Hirsch, an attorney with Community Legal Services, argues testing would not save money or help people overcome drug addiction. She also said an estimated 40 to 60 percent of women who receive welfare benefits have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault and could find the tests with an observer traumatic.
"To do that without any basis for actual suspicion for that individual, it's not only unlawful and unconstitutional, it's a waste of taxpayer's money and affirmatively causes harm," Hirsch said.
Courts have halted implementation of similar laws in Florida and Michigan. In Florida, the ACLU obtained documents showing the tests cost the state more than they saved by disqualifying welfare recipients.
Elizabeth Stelle, a policy analyst at Pennsylvania's conservative Commonwealth Foundation, said the state should keep in mind the goal of not spending more on a program than it would save.
"We need to look at reforms beyond drug testing," she said.
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