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Drug testing Arkansans for welfare benefits showing slim results

For the last two years, Arkansans who apply for Transitional Employment Assistance have had to complete a drug screen and possible drug test in order to receive their benefits. (Photo: KATV)

It's help for destitute Arkansans; Transitional Employment Assistance or TEA. It's the state's implementation of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and in 2016 Arkansas lawmakers required all Arkansans applying for TEA benefits to submit to drug screening prior to receiving those benefits.

A drug screen is different from a drug test. The state's screening tool is a simple questionnaire modeled after other states with similar programs. The questionnaire is very straightforward.

"One I believe is - currently - within the past 30 days have you used illegal drugs, and the other question is in the past 30 days have you lost or been denied a job because of illegal drug use," recited Steve Guntharp, deputy director of the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services.

If an applicant answers yes to either question - or the applicant at the time of application appears to be under the influence - DWS deems the applicant to be suspicious and is then asked to submit to a urinalysis drug test.

As of April 27 - 7,243 Arkansans have applied for TEA benefits - all have been drug screened. But of out those screened, only 31 were found to be "suspicious"; out of that only 12 actually submitted to drug tests since the state cannot require applicants to take the test due to federal stipulations. Only four applicants ended up testing positive for illicit substances.

"Just from a common sense perspective, it's probably not a great way to capture the true number of people who would need help with drug abuse problems," said Ellie Wheeler, senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families.

Wheeler said what's frustrating is that out of the 31 deemed to be suspicious of drug use by the state, none have receive drug treatment.

"So if the idea is to help people who have drug abuse or addiction issues, we're not really making that connection between the treatment and the people who need treatment," said Wheeler.

"We're not allowed to pay for the drug treatment," said Guntharp. "This is federal money - federal TANF dollars - and we're stipulated that we cannot use that money for any medical purposes."

According to a DWS report, to date the state has spent $493 on drug testing for the 12 TEA applicants that ended up submitting to drug tests, but Wheeler still says the program is wasteful. She said DWS employees could be doing other things with their time. Guntharp didn't say whether he thought that was the case.

"I'm not going to get into that," said Guntharp. "What the legislature asks us to do we consider to be essential, so if they put into law that we need to do this then we're going to do it."

Out of the 31 applicants deemed suspicious of drug use by the state, 19 refused drug tests and ultimately denied benefits. The four that tested positive for drugs through state drug tests were also denied benefits.

Governor Asa Hutchinson told KATV that he admits the program could be better, but said it's helped save the state from paying TEA benefits to 23 people deemed by the state to be drug users.

"I think it's a deterrent, it's a discouragement," said Hutchinson. "Can it be more effective? We're open to ideas there, but right now this certainly wouldn't want to give it up. It's one tool that is helpful."

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