Pubdate: Mon, 28 Jan 2013
Source: Telegraph, The (Nashua, NH)
Copyright: 2013 Telegraph Publishing Company


When did being poor mean it was OK for state lawmakers to treat you
like a common criminal?

Last week, the House Health, Human Services and Elders Affairs
Committee took testimony on such a bill (HB 121) filed by two Greater
Nashua legislators. If approved, it would require drug testing for all
applicants seeking welfare benefits under the state's Temporary Aid
For Needy Families program.

Under the bill - introduced by Rep. Donald Le-Brun, R-Nashua, and Rep.
Jeanine Notter, R-Merrimack - welfare applicants would have to pay for
the test up front. Those who passed would be reimbursed the estimated
$45; those who failed would not.

Applicants who test positive for drugs would be ineligible to apply
for welfare benefits for one year, unless they can document successful
completion of a substance abuse treatment program recognized by the
state Department of Health and Human Services. In that case,
individuals would be permitted to reapply in six months.

Sponsors of the controversial bill say the intent is two-fold: to
ensure taxpayer money isn't used to support someone's drug habit and
to identify people addicted to drugs so they can seek treatment.

"There are a lot of people who are using TANF money to buy drugs,"
Notter said after the hearing. "How is that helping the kids?"

But opponents had no difficultly coming up with reasons why this
punitive bill should be rejected out of hand, starting with the
spurious contention that welfare recipients are gaming the system in
large numbers.

"It's unfortunate that there's such a persistent myth about who uses
the TANF program and what people who use the TANF program are like,"
said Sarah Mattson, policy director for New Hampshire Legal
Assistance, which offers legal aid to the poor. "This is a component
of that myth to suggest that there are really high rates of drug use
(among TANF applicants). It's just not borne out in the numbers."

Florida's experience backs her up. During the four months a similar
law was in place in 2011 - a federal court put a stop to it on the
grounds that it violated the Constitution's ban on unreasonable
searches - only 2.6 percent of the applicants (108 of 4,086) failed
the test, mostly for marijuana. In fact, the $118,000 the state spent
to reimburse the vast majority who passed the test exceeded what it
saved in denied benefits.

In New Hampshire, the fiscal note attached to the bill by DHHS assumes
that - based on an estimated caseload of 2,670 - anywhere from 2.6
percent (69 applicants) to 8.8 percent (235 applicants) would test
positive and be denied assistance. The cost of reimbursing the other
applicants? Between $219,153 and $234,052 a year.

Meanwhile, the argument that the bill would do anything to help those
who fail the test is similarly suspect. While LeBrun and Notter have
made this point part of their sales pitch, the language in the bill
suggests otherwise.

The only state "assistance" called for is handing out a list of
state-approved substance abuse treatment centers in or near their home
communities. That's it. No treatment. No reimbursement for the drug
test. Just a list - like picking up a travel brochure at a welcome
center on your way to the White Mountains.

The House of Representatives should reject this ill-conceived bill at
its first opportunity. 
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