Bill would make welfare drug testing permanent

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KATV) - A bill that would make drug testing welfare applicants a permanent program is headed for passage.

Senate bill 123 passed in the Senate and headed to the House.

A bill passed in 2015 made drug testing welfare applicants a requirement if that applicant checked a box reporting they are on illegal drugs or lost their job because of it.

The Department of Workforce Services says implementing drug testing into the welfare program has saved thousands for the state.

Critics say it's not about the money, but the connotation that needy families are on drugs.

Of the more than 3,000 people who applied for welfare last year, 17 voluntarily checked on a form that they were either taking illegal drugs or lost their job because of it.

"We then ask them to take a drug test - they have the option to decline," said Steve Guntharp, spokesman for the Department of Workforce Services.

Eleven declined to take the drug test.

"If they decline, they will be refused benefits," Guntharp said.

Six people took the drug test. Of those six, four passed and only two failed.

If those who failed agree to drug counseling, paid for by themselves, then their children can stay on the benefits. If treatment is refused, the benefits are stopped.

"Both of those individuals declined treatment," Guntharp said.

The 17 drug tests cost the state $243 last year. Workforce Services says no additional staff were hired and no extra hours were worked.

But the department's spokesman does point to savings. A family of three on welfare costs the state about $200 a month.

Because 13 people either refused a test or failed, the Department of Workforce Services estimates the state saved an average of $31,000.

But Ellie Wheeler with Arkansas Advocates for Family and Children says it's not about the money, but the message it sends.

"There's really no reason to single out this group of people in Arkansas and assume they have different drug abuse and use rates than anyone else," Wheeler said.

Wheeler says the simple fact only 13 people out of the entire program were identified shows it's ineffective.

"If our goal is to help Arkansans who have drug abuse problems, you know we're not going to do it two people a year."

So far, only three people have agreed to a test in 2017. One passed, the other two are pending.

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