Ohio Bill Would Require Drug Tests For Welfare Assistance

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UPDATED: Thursday August 29, 2013 7:30 PM

State senator Tim Schaffer has introduced a bill that would establish a test program for drug-testing welfare recipients.

"The taxpayer in Ohio is a very generous taxpayer, and they expect their money to go toward helping children of our state, not going to drug dealers," said Schaffer.  "We need to make sure those tax dollars are protected."

Schaffer's proposed legislation would create a pilot program to test illegal drug use by recipients in Ohio Works First.  Initially, three counties will participate.

"It will be a two-year pilot program, and at the end of that the Department of Jobs and Family Services will submit a report with statistics to the General Assembly, and we will look at it and see what the results say," said Schaffer.  "If there's a need, we'll expand statewide."

Schaffer, a Lancaster Republican, says his bill would require applicants to answer truthfully on whether they have used drugs in the past six months.

If they answer yes, they undergo a drug test.  If they answer no, applicants are not tested.

"It is an honor system, yes and no," said Schaffer.  "The JFS offices will be screening these folks, however, if the applicant lies, that is anything from a 1st degree misdemeanor to possibly a 3rd degree felony.  If somebody intentionally lies on the application, the penalties are very steep."

Applicants who fail a drug test would be banned from receiving benefits for at least six months.

Advocates for low income and poor Ohioans were quick to criticize the proposal.

Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio calls it a punitive bill.

"It assumes guilt before innocence and imposes expensive testing on those who struggle the hardest in our state," said Faith.  "We should be exploring ways to address unmet needs, not ways to take away eligible benefits."

Lisa Hamler Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, says the bill places unnecessary hardships on lower income people.

"This bill targets the poor through a degrading and expensive assessment," said Hamler Fugitt.  "It boggles my mind that this legislature would want to create a new bureaucratic hurdle to kick our poorest of poor when they're down."

Schaffer says taxpayers are aware of the problem, and they want something done about it.

"If one family has a drug problem, and they're using taxpayer money, that's one family too many," said Schaffer.  "The taxpayer expects the money they pay for these government assistance programs to be used for public assistance not to go to drug dealers."

Eight states have approved drug testing laws for welfare applicants since 2011.  Ohio would be the 30th state this year to debate the issue.

Schaffer says his bill has been written with an eye on potential lawsuits.

"That's why this bill has taken so long to craft," said Schaffer. "We've taken in a number of interested parties, testimonies, making sure we're talking to all the relevant organizations and experts out there who can help us make sure this plan will work."

Gene King, director of the Ohio Poverty Law Center, says the bill is more about politics than policy.

"There's no evidence that drug addiction is more prevalent in Ohio Works First populations than in the general population," said King. "It's a bill based on bias against poor people that creates a de facto application fee for public assistance. As such, it's both invasive and subject to legal challenge."

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