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Drug tests for welfare recipients could get new life
Proposed federal law would make way for change
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Plans to drug test some food stamp recipients in Georgia have been on hold since 2014, but a proposed federal law would allow the state to move forward on this initiative.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has a policy that prohibits states from imposing drug screens as an eligibility requirement to receive benefits.

And an Atlanta federal appeals court ruled against similar legislation in Florida, citing the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable search and seizures.

Georgia’s plan to test recipients as a prerequisite for other “welfare” benefits, such as cash assistance, were halted as a result.

About a dozen other states have passed similar laws, most of which include a “reasonable suspicion” clause that limits the total number of food stamp recipients who are tested.

More than 46 million people across the nation received food stamps last year at a cost of about $74 billion.The budget for food stamps has nearly doubled since the recession hit in 2008 and 2009.

Nearly 7,500 households in Hall collected food stamps in 2014, according to census figures.

The median income for local food stamp recipients is $23,401, and they receive an average of $190 a month in assistance.

There are about 1.8 million recipients across the state.

Critics say the cost of drug testing outweighs the savings generated by detecting users and kicking them off assistance.

“It is disturbing to hear that this punitive proposal has raised its ugly head again,” said Wendy Glasbrenner, managing attorney for the Gainesville regional office of the Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit law firm that provides free services to eligible low-income residents.

Tennessee, for example, reports that less than 100 of the 39,121 people who receive welfare benefits have tested positive for illicit drug use since July 2014.

In Missouri, 446 cash assistance recipients, of a total of 38,970 applicants, were tested and 48 had positive results. The budgeted cost for the program was $336,297.

Florida’s law, before it was struck down by the courts, found that just 108 out of 4,086 applicants tested positive at a cost of $118,140 to taxpayers.

Glasbrenner said drug testing food stamp recipients also has the effect of shaming the poor and should be applied to any person or group that receives public assistance, if at all.

“If the real concern is that government benefits should never go to persons who test positive for drugs, why not share the love and test everyone who gets a tax break and government subsidy, including officers of banks who are bailed out, farms whose crops are subsidized and the directors of corporations who settle in Georgia due to huge tax breaks, instead of just targeting the poor?” she asked.

Supporters of the law in Georgia, which includes prominent state Republicans, said social service case workers are given discretion in determining who to test, and that the goal is to identify who might need substance abuse counseling.

“I think they know when folks have a problem,” Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said. “They need more than just food stamps. They need some kind of rehab.”

The federal bill would allocate $600 million for states to tap to treat those who test positive.

Thomas Ramirez, shelter manager at Good News at Noon in Gainesville, said many poor families look to the ministry to supplement their food needs when government assistance runs out before the end of the month.

“Lots of families still need it,” Ramirez said.

And many of those asking for help also make sure to pitch in with cleaning and other volunteer needs around the ministry.  

“It shows they’re not just takers, but they’re givers,” Ramirez said.  

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