To Reform Welfare, Treat Drug Abuse

When Kathy Davis (not her real name) became addicted to crack cocaine, the odds against her staying off welfare and retaining custody of her three children were overwhelming. After she lost her children, Ms. Davis sought help from Project Return, a residential treatment center for substance abusers in New York City. She sobered up, found work as a nurse's assistant, left the welfare rolls, and got the kids back.

0ne would think that a nation interested in moving people from welfare to work - and breaking the cycle of poverty and welfare dependency - would want to replicate Davis's success story as often as possible. To find and keep jobs, welfare clients addicted to drugs or alcohol need treatment. Yet a new nationwide survey by the Legal Action Center shows that most states and municipalities are woefully ill-prepared to meet this challenge.

Only nine states plan to increase funds for alcohol and drug treatment for welfare clients, the study shows. That's true even though a high percentage of welfare recipients are addicted, according to the few states that bother to keep track. Oregon, for example, says 50 to 60 percent of its welfare caseload has alcohol or drug problems; Kansas reports that 20 to 50 percent of its welfare clients would fail a drug screen. Almost 80 percent of children entering foster care in 1991 in California, New York, and Pennsylvania had at least one substance-abusing parent.

Unless the nation gears up to address substance abuse issues, welfare reform will be in serious trouble. Yet many states are not only dodging the problem; they are actually reducing funds available for treatment.

Like many other women with children, Davis used her cash welfare benefits and food stamps to pay for residential drug treatment in 1995. But the federal welfare law passed in August 1996 prohibits giving these benefits to anyone convicted of a drug felony, even those who possessed drugs but were not dealers. States can "opt out" of this lifetime ban, but our study found that 20 states plan to deny all public assistance to people with drug felony convictions as a result of the new law. The result: More and more mothers on welfare will have no money to pay for the treatment they need.

THE main reason for this impending disaster is that people with alcohol and drug problems have barely been mentioned in the welfare-reform debate. Few politicians want to represent them. Public officials are loathe to say anything about drug users except "lock'em up and throw away the key." But without more substance abuse treatment and prevention services, hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients won't be ready to work when they reach new federally mandated time limits for assistance. And states will face major penalties for not meeting the new work-participation requirements, which rise from 25 percent to 50 percent between 1997 and 2002.

State and local officials need not be tagged as tax-and-spend liberals if they devote more resources to addressing these problems among welfare recipients. The money is already available from the windfalls that virtually every state has received from the conversion of welfare monies into block grants. What is needed is the political courage to use these funds to fight addiction. Doing so will save more money: A 1994 California study determined that every dollar of state money invested in alcohol and drug treatment saved taxpayers seven dollars on other social services such as foster care and health care.

Moreover, addressing addiction now will help to make reform work. An Oregon study showed that clients who completed substance abuse treatment programs earned 65 percent more than clients in a comparison group. In a Texas study 59 percent of formerly unemployed participants had jobs after finishing treatment.

States should also establish systems that enable caseworkers to accurately identify clients whose drug and alcohol problems prevent them from working; few have such systems now. A few other simple steps will make a big difference. States can encourage addicted welfare clients to seek help by not counting time spent in treatment towards the new time limits for public assistance. And only those recipients who refuse treatment should be sanctioned.

New York State and Oregon have already taken some of these steps. A few other states are heading in the same direction, but most seem to be blindly heading over a cliff. If instead they start helping addicted welfare clients, they will reduce public assistance rolls substantially and give our national welfare reform effort a fighting chance to succeed.

* Gwen Rubinstein and Paul N. Samuels are, respectively, deputy director of national policy and president/director of the Legal Action Center, a think tank specializing in drug, alcohol, and AIDS policy and law.

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