Welfare recipients could need to pass drug tests for benefits
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Welfare recipients could need to pass drug tests for benefits

Date: April 9, 2009
By: Michael Bushnell
State Capitol Bureau
Links: HB 30, the vote.

JEFFERSON CITY - Welfare recipients may have to pass drug tests to keep a portion of the money they receive from the state, according to a bill which passed the state House on Thursday.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston, would create a system to test beneficiaries of the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Brandom said any TANF recipient who is "reasonably suspected" of using illegal narcotics could be tested by the state and have part of their benefits withheld for a year, about $58 per month.

Brandom said it was reasonable for recipients of government money to be held accountable for it, adding that not all drug users are addicts. She added that TANF is designed as a welfare-to-work program anyway, and that drug addicts would struggle to find a job as is.

"The people of Missouri do not want us using their tax dollars to subsidize drug use," she said. "I don't know this for sure, but if people have really terrible drug addictions, I don't know how many are out there trying to get a job. There are also a lot of recreational users who still can function and get jobs but should not be getting money from the state to go buy them."

Before the bill passed, 109-45, with the support of every Republican and 20 Democrats, opponents decried the legislation as unfair to children of addicts who could lose money. Multiple Democrats said it was naive to think that addicts supporting a family on less than $300 per month would be spending their money on drugs. Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, who is a former police officer, said many recipients barter for their drugs with things such as their property or through prostitution. 

"Fifty-eight dollars doesn't buy a lot of groceries, but it also doesn't buy a lot of drugs," Roorda said. "Once you become addicted, you no longer have free will. Taking away this money will not get people off drugs, it will just further devastate them and their families financially."

Rep. Jeanette Oxford, D-St. Louis, called the bill "irrational" because it is based on the belief that withholding money can be a motivator to kick a crippling drug addiction. She said drug addicts are powerless and that if other attempts to stop using drugs haven't worked, there is no reason to think that withholding money would too.

Oxford added that she and other opponents of the bill strongly believe in getting all Missourians off of illegal drugs but that this was an ill-conceived way of doing so.

"I believe in tough love, but to make tough love work, you need love to go with the tough," she said. "Taking $58 from a family living on $292 dollars a month is not tough love; it's abuse."

Under Brandom's plan, there would not be random drug tests; the Missouri Department of Social Services would set up a series of criteria that would define "reasonable suspicion" that someone is using illegal narcotics. She gave an example that many hospitals screen newborn mothers for drugs, and if one fails a test there, then the state would likely administer another test to see if the mother would lose benefits. 

In support of the bill, Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, said, "The government helps those in need," adding that he has supported billions of dollars in entitlement spending in the past.

But he added, "We should ask recipients to share personal responsibility in their lives and to do something to earn the money that working people give them."


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