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Advocates For The Poor Fight Welfare Drug Testing Bill

Advocates for low-income Ohioans are fighting a plan to test welfare applicants for drugs. Backers of a bill introduced Thursday say it's in the best interest of the applicants and their families. But the advocates say the bill unfairly targets poor Ohioans. Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow reports.

An Ohio senator from Lancaster wants to create a pilot program that would implement a drug screening for applicants of the state’s welfare program… also known as Ohio Works First.

Republican Senator Tim Schaffer says the state would create some type of screening to determine if there’s a reasonable cause to test an applicant for drug use. If that individual tests positive then they would be sent to treatment and the assistance would be forwarded to their families.

Senator Schaffer says the plan achieves three goals, it would treat substance abuse, make sure the assistance is used for the right reasons, and protect taxpayer money so it’s not spent on drugs.

Schaffer: “The more I’ve learned about how many of these kids are in these families that need this help desperately—I think it’s almost a crime for us to bury our heads in the sand and say ‘this isn’t—the drug abuse isn’t happening in these families.’ This is an opportunity to identify them, get them the help, and I’ve just become absolutely passionate about it.”

A coalition of groups geared towards helping Ohio’s less fortunate say this program unfairly targets low-income people and categorizes them as the majority of drug users.

King: “Drug use is a problem and it’s a problem for people all over the state and across the country but it is not primarily a low-income issue.”

That’s Eugene King, director of the Ohio Poverty Law Center. Among his organization’s many concerns is that the applicants may lie about their drug use for the sake of getting assistance for their family. But lying on the application would be met with steep penalties. He’s also afraid drug tests could result in discouraging people from applying altogether.

King denies the argument that drug testing is needed because these people are applying for taxpayer assistance. He counters that everyone benefits one way or another from public dollars, using the examples of public education and mortgage interest reduction.

King: “You know I haven’t heard anyone suggest that we should test people receiving the benefits of other programs which frankly have a much higher cost.”

Joel Potts is executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association. He agrees that drug abuse is not a problem that’s exclusively related to people of low-income. However, he urges that there is a problem within this group of people that must be addressed.

Potts: “We struggle everyday trying to help people overcome barriers to get into employment and if they’ve got a problem with substance abuse—the worst thing we can do is ignore it or pretend it’s not there or going along not knowing what’s really there. From an administrative perspective the more information we have the better service we can provide that individual.”

Potts says that his group remains neutral to the bill but adds that he welcomes any attempt at trying to gather the data on drug abuse among low-income families.

Potts: “One of the issues that always comes up and it’s a constant struggle for us and nobody can answer is ‘how big of a problem is it?’ We don’t test for it now, we don’t have any real tangible proof short of going out and having some type of test—you don’t know what you don’t know.”

The bill would set aside $100,000 for drug treatment… which opponents say is not enough. At the end of the proposed two-year program… the state would be required to complete a report. Schaffer and Potts hope that report shows how much money the program could save and how many people in this group need help with drug addiction.

Democratic Senator Nina Turner from Cleveland joins the opposition in saying that this places unfair suspicion on low-income Ohioans. She suggests that maybe lawmakers should be held to the same standards and also be subjected to drug tests.

Nine states have enacted similar drug testing programs. The laws in two of those states are now being challenged in court.

This is the third time Senator Schaffer has tried to get such a system in place so he understands his proposal comes with a certain amount of opposition and even controversy.

Schaffer: “I’m not going to stop. I’m not going to slow down. I’m not going to retreat or turn around and run. I am going to keep working on this bill to help these kids and get these abusers treatment and I’m not going to stop.”

Jim has been with WCBE since 1996. Before that he worked as a reporter at another Columbus radio station, and for three newspapers in Southwest Florida.
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