SC bill would require drug tests for welfare

March 23, 2012

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- Opponents of a bill requiring all welfare applicants in South Carolina to pass a drug test said Thursday the costly proposal would violate the constitution, but its sponsor said it's a requirement constituents want.

Rep. Tom Young, R-Aiken, said if someone is using illegal drugs, they should not get a taxpayer-funded benefit.

"There is no justification," he said. "How do we know those kids are getting the benefit of the welfare money versus their parents spending them on illegal drugs?"

Opponents said the legislation is unwarranted and fuels an inaccurate stereotype of poor people who need a boost. A House panel postponed voting on the bill Thursday.

Young's bill mimics a law in Florida that took effect last July and was blocked by a federal judge in October. During those interim months, less than 4 percent of applicants in that state tested positive.

"It's a misuse of taxpayer dollars, given the overwhelmingly majority of tests that are negative," said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in South Carolina. "We shouldn't feed public misperception."

The ACLU filed the Florida lawsuit on behalf of a retired veteran and single father, who complained the required testing violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. A final ruling is still pending.

At least 36 states proposed laws last year involving drug tests for welfare checks and food stamps, and at least 25 states have proposed similar measures this year. Of the three states that have enacted laws so far, only Florida required drug testing for all applicants. Arizona's and Missouri's laws base testing on suspicion of drug use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A bill being considered in Georgia would exempt women in domestic violence shelters.

Other states' proposals haven't passed largely because testing without suspicion was struck down as unconstitutional in 2003, when a federal appeals court ruled on a Michigan law.

Like Florida's law, Young's bill requires the applicant to pay for the drug test upfront. Applicants would be reimbursed in their first check if they pass. Young said that would mitigate any cost to the state.

Opponents say people so poor they're applying for welfare probably can't afford to pay the estimated $60 cost of the test kit. They also doubt that provision would pass federal scrutiny.

If South Carolina were to foot the bill, the drug tests alone could cost $2.5 million, plus there would be administrative costs, said Linda Martin, the state Department of Social Services' welfare director.

"This fundamentally offends my basic sensibilities as an American," said Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia. "If we implement this bill, it would cost citizens more than it would ever save them."

In South Carolina, the maximum welfare a family of four can receive is $270 a month, while the average family payment is less than $170. In January, 17,704 families in the state received welfare checks, for a total of about $3 million. To qualify, they must fall below 50 percent of the federal poverty level. That means a mom with two children, for example, must make less than $763 a month.

Martin also said taking away a single mother's share of welfare could undermine DSS job training, job seeking and drug treatment programs.

Under the bill, the adult who tests positive would lose out on the welfare money, but her children would not.

The average family on welfare in South Carolina consists of a single mother and two children, who can get a maximum of $219 a month. Taking out the mother's $40 share would leave $179 for the two kids.

Parents collecting welfare are required by law to undergo training and look for jobs. DSS already tests those who show signs of drug use, and if they test positive, they're mandated to enroll and successfully complete a drug treatment program -- or the entire family's taken off the rolls. But under the bill, if a parent tests positive upfront or doesn't take one, DSS could not make any demands, Martin said.

"I'm very concerned about the possible unintended consequences," she said. "People could say, 'I don't want to have to get up every morning and go to a job class. All I have to do is take $40 less a month.'"

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