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Welfare drug screening bill divides lawmakers

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Before Indianapolis resident Connie Boster stopped drinking and abusing drugs, she sold her food stamps for money to buy alcohol and bought sodas from corner stores to get change in cash.

Welfare abuse such as Boster's is driving an Indiana effort to require recipients to be screened for the likelihood of addiction and limit food stamps to the purchase of only "nutritional foods." The legislation places the state in the middle of two national debates on government assistance programs.

Under the bill, residents who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families would be required to fill out a questionnaire that screens for substance abuse and possibly take a drug test. Children whose guardian is ineligible to receive benefits could designate another adult in their place.

The bill also would restrict what can be bought through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Recipients could only purchase foods deemed "nutritional" by the state, a requirement that Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, says would prohibit recipients from using their benefits to buy candy and sugary drinks.

A Republican supermajority fueled the bill's passage in the Indiana House, but questions persist about its constitutionality and cost, as well as the practicality of placing more restrictions on assistance given to some of Indiana's poorest residents.

An average of about 25,000 Indiana residents per month received TANF funds in 2013, and more than 926,000 received SNAP benefits, according to federal data.

At least nine states have passed legislation requiring drug testing or screening of TANF recipients, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But the measures haven't always passed court muster.

A federal judge ruled Florida's law violated protections against unreasonable search and seizure, an outcome McMillin hopes to avoid by screening recipients first to determine if there's cause for further action.

The USDA rejected waiver requests from both New York and Minnesota to limit foods bought with SNAP. The Indiana bill would require a similar waiver, which the Family and Social Services Agency warned might result in a denial.

"Recent attempts in that have resulted in states being rejected when they attempt to restrict those purchases of soft drinks, candy, soda and sweets," Lance Rhodes, FSSA's Division of Family Resources director, said during testimony for the bill. "We're concerned there might be some significant legal questions about treating one group of people differently than another group of people."

Opponents also argue the bill unfairly targets the poor, who they say are no more likely to fall prey to addiction or bad nutrition than anyone else. USDA analysis shows the poor make only slightly worse food choices, and only about 2.6 percent of Florida applicants failed a drug test.

"Applying for public assistance is not a waiver of our rights under the Fourth Amendment," said Ken Falk, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union Indiana chapter.

Boster, who receives both TANF and SNAP money, said she doesn't mind the proposed changes now that she's drug-free.

"I think the drug-testing thing would be good, and it's not just because I'm not using now," Boster said. "I see more now. I see how it's being misused."

The state and TANF recipients would have to pick up the tab for drug testing anyone who shows a likelihood of addiction. The move cost Florida about $45,780, not including court fees.

The price could be much higher for Indiana. Implementing the bill would save about $521,000 over two years but cost at least $1.18 million in the same time, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. The state would pay for passed drug tests.

Those who test positive for drugs would initially continue to receive money if they enter drug treatment, a change from previous proposals. After four months of failed tests, benefits would be cut off for three months. To receive benefits again, applicants would have to test drug-free.

The cost of tests every few weeks would come out of their monthly assistance. McMillin said tests might cost about $20.

Drug treatment could range from free church counseling to treatment that can range in cost from $25 a day to more than $1,700 a day depending on the facility.

Opponents of the bill question how affordable treatment would be.

"Treating someone for a heroin addiction unfortunately is not something you would be able to get at your local church," state Rep. Karlee Macer, D-Indianapolis, said during a committee hearing. "It can be thousands of dollars to treat an addiction for heroin."

McMillin said the fiscal analysis of the bill doesn't tell the whole story.

"We at least save money on this by changing our policy, by offering hand-ups instead of handouts and getting people back on their feet," he said. "Those numbers are not reflected in the LSA numbers."

The measure now goes to the Senate.

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  • pay attention to what you just said
    If the government stayed out of their business they wouldn't have any benefits to worry about. Think before you speak...
  • Do Legislaturers Have Facts to Show the Need for this Law?
    Two points: (1) it appears from the comments thus far that no one has a clear profile of welfare recipients but many assume that they are all drug addicts and (2) I saw no reference to cause and effect regarding how drugs adversely affect the goals of the program; again the assumption seems to be that if you receive welfare benefits and use drugs, you are abusing the program. I don't have the answers to these questions but I am hoping the legislators are depending on some fact-based comprehensive analysis of the situation before passing the law in question.
  • And who funds these entitlements?
    The fact that any legislator would vote against ensuring that tax dollars are used properly screams for their defeat at election time. How could anyone justify hard-working, productive citizens' tax dollars NOT be protected from misuse is beyond my comprehension. Our annual national welfare expenditure exceeds $400B and it's not policed. Make sure you know how every governmental voted on this issue and make sure this term is their last if they voted against it!
  • How can the civil liberties complain that the gift received is not exactly what they want?!
    Money and food received is not a privilege It's a gift from those of us who pay for it----That's not the government----It's those of us are kind enough to send hard earned $ to the government for them to re distribute---pretty much as they please---Give deserving families help---not druggies where it will just help them to keep their current bad habits !!
  • Racism
    D C, I bring up racism because it comes every single time I hear people complaining about the folks on "the dole". The stereotypes are always in reference to minority, often with attempts to be "funny" by pretending to say what the presumed recipient would be saying. And yes, I'm white, and it's amazing what some are willing to say when minorities are not around to hear it. Calling someone or some idea racist, is "hate speech"? You GOTTA be kidding.
  • It's our money...
    I know I will be accused of being cold-hearted, but almost one million people in Indiana alone are receiving SNAP? It's our money, people. While I don't see much benefit in the drug testing (it's so easy to fake), I don't see anything wrong with limiting what a recipient can buy with it. Nobody's saying that you can't buy candy for your kids or sugary drinks. All this says is that you can't use your SNAP money for it. How is that so draconian? And another thing. I have had enough of race-baiting. Every time any element of society says or does anything to promote the reigning of runaway entitlement spending, someone who disagrees pulls the race card. If you think about it, there are people of all races receiving entitlements including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Unemployment Compensation, SNAP, and the list goes on. Calling someone a racist should be considered hate speech.
    • Before they voted
      I wonder if before they voted, they passed around dixie cups for the legislators -- the largest recipients of taxpayer-paid salaries -- to submit their own urine drug testing.
    • ReQuote
      One of the best comments in teh INdy Star "Let it out" says it all and it goes something like this... I had to take a drug test to provide the money for the welfare recipient to get the handout why can't that take one to receive it.
    • Just social engineering, at best
      It's not going to save money! The only possible positive outcome of making Hoosiers healthier, which depends on actually funding treatment (which they show absolutely no interest in actually doing), and providing greater SNAP benefits towards the purchasing of unprocessed foods (including those that are prepared meals, with deli food being one example), falls into the category of "social engineering", which is something conservatives will rail against. At the end of the day the bill is just going to be about "those" people. Just pure racism cloaked in a pretense of caring. If it wasn't, the restrictions would only apply for SNAP beneficiaries, but to much broader policy. When is the State going to start testing its politicians, and ensuring tax funded cops aren't eating donuts?
    • really?
      So you could not buy candy? If you have a child and you want to reward them you cannot buy 1 candybar? Wow. I can see not allowing a dozen candy bars but NONE. Whatever happened to government staying out of people's business.
      • Civil Liberties
        I am as anti drug as one can be, BUT when we make welfare recipients take drug tests, can the rest of us be far behind? One is eligible for welfare based on income, not drugs, therefore the tests are not relevant!!!

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