Demonizing the poor


Ohio has plenty of problems, but rampant drug abuse by welfare recipients is not one of them. Yet Republican lawmakers want to make drug tests for recipients a priority of the next legislative session.

Sen. Tim Schaffer (R., Lancaster) sponsored the bill that the Senate passed in this General Assembly session and that will return next year. He says America’s “drug epidemic is tearing our families apart.” His solution: Focus on the small number of drug users among the 30,895 adults who got Temporary Assistance to Needy Families last month.

Welfare rolls in Ohio have fallen from about 226,000 people in January, 2011, to a little more than 147,000 last month. Some advocates for the poor attribute the drop in part to GOP policies that aim to restrict eligibility wherever possible.

Tying drug tests to welfare checks has become a battle cry of Republican lawmakers in 30 states. It feeds the stereotype that people on public assistance are irresponsible cheats who scam the system to buy drugs while they drive around town in expensive cars or sit at home watching their big-screen TVs.

The reality is that more than three-quarters of welfare recipients are children, many in the care of single mothers who get no financial help from absent fathers. Some studies have reported higher drug use among adult welfare recipients, but none shows the rampant drug use that backers of drug testing assert.

Similar laws passed or considered in other states have shown flaws. A Florida law that made drug testing mandatory for all welfare applicants was declared an unconstitutional infringement on Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches, and is before a federal court. Other states have found that the cost of administering the tests exceeds whatever savings they realize from throwing drug abusers off welfare rolls.

Before the Florida law was put on hold, only 2.5 percent of aid applicants tested positive for drugs. Another 2 percent refused testing and lost their aid. That’s considerably lower than the 7 percent of all Floridians who admitted using illegal drugs in a 2006-2007 federal survey.

In the hope of passing legal muster, the Ohio bill’s sponsors illogically expect drug users who apply for public assistance to inform on themselves, and to pay for the test. To avoid the charge that the bill aims to punish drug users and reduce welfare rolls, the bill includes $100,000 to treat applicants who fail the drug test in three pilot counties. That doesn’t excuse its failings.

When state lawmakers return to Columbus next month, they should tackle issues that are truly important to Ohioans — jobs, taxes, schools, the Ohio Turnpike’s future. They don’t need to demonize and stigmatize Ohio’s neediest residents by chasing politically symbolic solutions to problems that don’t exist.