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Why Ohio may start drug testing welfare recipients

The debate on drug screening the poor has rippled through Ohio before. But lawmakers say this new proposal seeks to be more protective than punitive.

Ohio state legislators are reviving a controversial plan to screen welfare applicants for drugs, reports the Associated Press.

The bill, expected to be introduced Wednesday, is being sponsored by Republican Reps. Tim Schaffer and Ron Maag.

Representative Schaffer first proposed the idea for a two-year pilot program in 2013, and said at a press conference Tuesday that the new legislation resolves concerns associated with his previous bill.

Before, for instance, applicants who were denied welfare wouldn’t have been given the ability to receive drug treatment, reported Cleveland.com, but the new bill appropriates $100,000 for treatment programs.

If the measure passes, people applying for cash assistance under the Ohio Works First program would, first, undergo written screenings. Those with risk factors for drug abuse would be referred to a urine test, and, if applicable, on to a course of treatment. After six months, they would be eligible to get re-tested, reports Dayton Daily News.

Under this proposal, benefits would still be made available to the families of rejected applicants through guardians, churches, or other third parties, says Schaffer.

"This legislation is not a means to deny benefits, but rather, a means to identify and help these families in need," he said. "There's nothing that's going to stop getting the benefits to the children and families that need it."

As of May 2015, about 110,000 people – 95,000 children and 15,000 adults – were receiving Ohio Works First benefits, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. On average, each recipient got about $195 per month, for a total of more than $21 million each month.

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Ohio has tightened its public benefits system in recent years. In 2012, the state was “still scrambling” to meet a new federal standard designed to find jobs for at least half of all welfare recipients, reported The Christian Science Monitor.

"Enrollment in the program has dropped after the state began enforcing requirements that able-bodied adult recipients work or train for a job at least 30 hours a week," according to Cleveland.com.

But the idea of cutting benefits is a polarizing one that strikes familiar chords across the nation. A growing number of states – now 13 – have passed bills to test or screen public assistance recipients for drugs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Among the recently contested states are Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, and Kansas. Broad testing rules in Florida were struck down in 2013, when a district court ruled that the law violated Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable search. 

In February, news site Think Progress also found that welfare "applicants actually test positive at a lower rate than the drug use of the general population." Of the seven states that had existing programs, "the rate of positive drug tests to total welfare applicants ranges from 0.002 percent to 8.3 percent, but all except one have a rate below 1 percent," noted the report.

This meant that taxpayers were "spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to ferret out very few drug users," it concluded.

"While supporters say the Republican-backed legislation targets drug use and encourages responsible public spending, critics say it is unconstitutional, humiliating, and wasteful," reported the Monitor on a bill last year in Michigan.

Looking at those who have taken to social media, the landscape in Ohio is just as divided.

"This is merely perpetuating an ugly stereotype of people on public assistance," said Lisa Wurm, policy manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. "I agree with their stated goal of getting people who struggle with drug addiction help, but this is not the way to go about it."

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