RICHMOND — State lawmakers will try again this year to pass a controversial law requiring welfare recipients in Virginia to undergo drug testing.
Virginia was among three dozen states last year to introduce similar legislation that would apply to monthly cash benefits, food stamps or other public assistance programs. The measure died in the House of Delegates largely because of the estimated $1.3 million cost to hire additional staff and to administer and pay for the testing.
Supporters argue the state shouldn’t fund a welfare recipient’s drug habit. But opponents question why the bill targets only poor Virginians and whether the bill would do more harm than good for families and addicts.
Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, introduced a bill for the 2012 General Assembly session that would require adults who seek monthly cash assistance through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to be screened for possible substance abuse problems. If local social workers believe the person is abusing drugs, a drug test would then be ordered.
Applicants who test positive for drugs or refuse the test would be ineligible for the assistance for a year, according to the bill. Bell could not be reached for comment.
The Division of Legislative Services estimated the state would save just $553,000 a year due to applicants who would fail the test or decline the test, according to a fiscal impact statement for similar legislation introduced last year.
In comparison, the state provided about $110 million in cash benefits to TANF recipients in 2011, according to the Department of Social Services, which administers the program, along with food stamps and energy assistance programs.
About 35,000 families a month received TANF benefits in 2011. The average family received about $270 a month, according to the Department of Social Services.
Sen. Tom Garrett, R-Louisa County, who campaigned in support of drug testing last fall, said that the program is worth the cost.
“It really is about getting people in a position where they can help themselves. If you want to break the cycle of poverty where it exists, you need to first break the cycle of addiction,” Garrett said.
Testing isn’t meant to punish applicants and it should not lead to criminal charges, he said.
Identifying the problem and directing drug users to treatment centers will help ensure they are able to work, eventually alleviating the need for public assistance. That will help their families, and state coffers, Garrett said.
But Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, questioned the logic of targeting poor Virginians. And he wants to know whether data back up the assumption that welfare recipients have a higher rate of substance abuse than do middle- and upper-class Virginians, he said.
Toscano, the House minority leader, said the same principle could apply to any state-provided public benefit, including tax breaks for corporations or unemployment insurance for workers.
“Where does it stop?” he said.
Marjorie Yates, a recovery services manager with the Substance Abuse and Recovery Alliance in Richmond, said that addiction doesn’t discriminate and that poor Virginians are not more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than any other social class.
And Yates doesn’t believe mandatory testing and treatment will help applicants with a drug problem. Only when addicts recognize they have a problem and want help will they beat the addiction, Yates said.
Adults must be responsible for a child to be eligible for the help and often are required to take part in workforce training or job searching to receive benefits. Virginia provides benefits for up to 24 months but most families filter in and out of the program every few months, said Tom Steinhauser, director of benefit programs for the Department of Social Services.
TANF cases spiked in mid-2010, when the state saw as many as 37,000 families a month receiving benefits — a 15 percent increase since the economy began to weaken in 2007, Steinhauser said.
Out of 36 states that introduced legislation last year, just three — Arizona, Florida, and Missouri — enacted laws requiring drug testing for welfare recipients, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Florida’s law is being challenged in court.
A 2003 court ruling out of Michigan requires case workers to have reasonable suspicion of drug use before requiring a drug test. Bell’s bill would meet that legal threshold, said LaTonya Reed, staff attorney for the Virginia Poverty Law Center, which is tracking the legislation.