Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Punish the poor

A bad bill is back before the General Assembly that would require drug tests for some Ohioans who apply for welfare benefits. It was poor-bashing, money-wasting, constitutionally questionable legislation when it was proposed last year. It’s just as unnecessary now.

Under the bill, adults who seek cash aid from the Ohio Works First program in three selected counties would be subject to a drug test if they indicate on their application that they have used illegal drugs in the past six months. Applicants who say they have not used drugs would not be tested — a dubious screening device.

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Those who failed the drug test would be referred to treatment. They would have to wait at least six months to retake the test; they would be ineligible for benefits until they passed. If the protocol is successful — by whatever definition — it would be rolled out across the state.

Advocates claim the law would save tax dollars, deter drug abuse, and reduce applications for welfare. Evidence is clear from other states with similar laws that it would do none of these things.

Florida had such a law until a federal judge threw it out in 2011, calling it an “infringement” of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches. Before that, just 108 of 4,086 welfare applicants — 2.6 percent — failed the drug test, mostly for marijuana use.

Those tests cost $118,000 in taxpayer money — more than the state saved in denied benefits. And the number of applications for welfare did not go down.

Utah spent nearly $30,000 to test applicants and found 12 drug users. A similar law was in effect in Michigan for four years before a federal court declared it unconstitutional during the past decade.

Even the governor of North Carolina, a state that seems to be in a neck-and-neck race with Ohio to pass the most regressive legislation it can think of, recently vetoed a welfare drug-test bill. He called it “a recipe for government overreach and unnecessary government intrusion.”

There’s no reason to think the Ohio measure would be any more cost-effective than those in other states. The provision that only self-described users would face invasive testing doesn’t offer much of a constitutional fig leaf. Research suggests that welfare recipients are no more likely to abuse drugs than anyone else.

But so what? What are wasted tax dollars and constitutional violations, when lawmakers can mine political gold by stigmatizing poor people?

Ohio’s welfare caseload is the smallest in decades; fewer than 25,000 adults remain on the Ohio Works First rolls. So there would seem no need to make qualifying for the program’s meager cash benefits even more punitive. Denying aid to struggling adults in the guise of tough love is cynical rather than compassionate.

Doesn’t the legislature have anything better to do? Of course it does: Expanding the Medicaid program of health insurance for poor Ohioans would, among other things, greatly increase funding for effective drug treatment programs.

But that assumes that state lawmakers are primarily about doing the people’s business, rather than pandering to the biases of their most extreme constituents. That assumption clearly doesn’t apply to this General Assembly.

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