(IPS) State Sen. Albers Discusses Welfare Drug Test Legislation

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A shorter version of this article appeared first on Inter-Press Service’s website at: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=106044.

ATLANTA, Georgia, U.S., Nov 30, 2011 (IPS) – At least 36 states across the U.S. are proposing laws that would require applicants for and recipients of a variety of public aid programs to undergo drug testing in which they would have to provide a urine sample. Several states, including Arizona, Florida, Indiana and Missouri, have already passed such laws, despite the lack of local help for withdrawing from drugs in many states.

Participation in government assistance programs is nearing, and in some areas, exceeding record highs.

Over 45 million U.S. citizens, or about 15 percent of the population, now receive food stamps, according to numbers released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October. This is the largest number of food stamp participants recorded since the beginning of the program.

The proportions of those receiving food stamps are even higher in certain states, especially southern ones, with a high level of poverty.

Most of the current proposals for drug testing focus on recipients of cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

But some states are also looking at requiring applicants to undergo drug testing in order to receive food stamps, heating assistance, unemployment assistance or Medicaid.

Cities such as Chicago, Illinois and Flint, Michigan, have considered testing public housing recipients for drugs, while proposals in U.S. Congress would require such testing for public housing recipients nationwide.

In Georgia, a number of Republican state legislators pre-filed bills to require drug testing of all applicants for TANF; the State Senate version requires drug testing for Medicaid recipients as well.

“It’s time for an era of responsibility and accountability – we want to make sure those who need help know we’re not going to enable their dependency, they’re going to get help, and we’re going to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” State Senator John Albers, a Republican who introduced the Georgia legislation, told IPS.

“We’re going to make sure the program is there for those who need it; we’re going to make sure taxpayer dollars not spent on things that are illegal,” Albers said.

When asked what would happen to families with failed drugs tests or to those who do not elect to take a drug test, Albers responded, “If they do not pass, or do not take it, there are no benefits.”

So is the expectation that the families would just starve, or that they would get drug treatment?

“They will get clean, Albers said, adding that “a multitude of programs”, whether non-profit, faith based or governmental, exist to help people get clean.

“We want them to be healthy, get back into society; our goal is to help people, not hurt people. Most programs are free and some people don’t need a program, some will just make a decision by choice,” Albers said.

But when asked whether Albers’s office had done due diligence to ensure there are enough free or affordable drug treatment programs for those who fail the test, Albers said it had not, and that the lack of such programs would not change his opinion about the bill.

“The goal of the legislation isn’t to provide free programs. The goal is to make sure taxpayer dollars used wisely and not used for illegal activity,” Albers said.

But the Georgia proposal, like the proposals pending across the country, is likely to face major court challenges.

On Oct. 24 Federal District Judge Mary Scriven suspended Florida’s law, which passed in May of this year, after the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute had filed suit on behalf of Luis Lebron, 35, a Navy veteran and college student, who declined to take a drug test.

Scriven noted the State of Florida had enacted a demonstration project between 1999 and 2001, in which they drug tested welfare recipients whom they had a reasonable cause to believe were drug users. Of those tested, only 5.1 percent of the test results came back positive.

Thus, the level of drug use among welfare recipients was found to be lower than that of the general population, which was estimated to be 8.13 percent.

“Notwithstanding the overwhelming body of case law to the contrary, the State contends that the drug testing of welfare recipients is not a search. According to the State, the drug test is not forced or compelled, and, if there is no consent to the testing, there is no drug test and, thus, no search… The Court finds this argument unpersuasive,” Scriven wrote.

Scriven also wrote that Florida is not entitled to a “special needs exemption” from the US Constitutional prohibition against suspicionless searches, especially after the state’s own study found lower drug use among welfare recipients than the general population.

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Democrat from Florida, has already introduced legislation to repeal Florida’s drug testing requirement for welfare applicants.

“The allegation’s that it’s going to save the State of Florida some money. I disagree. I frankly think it’s a call to meanness as it relates to poor people in this country,” Joyner said.

“The legislation is not well-founded and it’s just an assault on poor people, in addition to the fact it’s a suspicionless search and seizure; there’s no nexus… It’s an allegation–they need help, they got to be on drugs–the evidence has refuted that,” Joyner said.

“You just can’t paint a broad brush against a category of people that happen to be the least fortunate in these trying times,” Joyner said.

“They [Republicans] don’t care. There’s a callousness and a meanness. This Conservative element that’s in this country, this is just one of many attacks on the poor. It’s heartbreaking to see how we treat our fellow man,” Joyner said.

(END/2011)

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