Pennsylvania officials roll out drug tests for welfare recipients

Pennsylvania officials are wading into the controversial territory of drug-testing welfare recipients, testing out a new program Republicans say is meant to prevent beneficiaries from getting a "free ride." 

After a federal judge blocked a much broader drug-test rule in Florida, Pennsylvania is taking a more careful approach. Instead of mandating drug tests for all welfare recipients, Pennsylvania plans to randomly test only those with a felony drug conviction within the past five years and those on probation for such offenses. 

Officials are taking it slow. A pilot program has started in Pennsylvania's Schuylkill County, which could pave the way for a statewide program this summer if it proves cost effective. 

State Sen. David Argall said in a statement last month that the program is "overdue," as officials try to cut costs in the state's most expensive division -- the Department of Public Welfare. 

"This initiative seeks to stop the abuse within our welfare system," he said, adding that government benefits should only go to those "who genuinely deserve state assistance." 

Proponents have argued it's not unreasonable for the government to require drug tests in exchange for payment, just as some employers do. 

But the proposals, in Pennsylvania and across the country, have come under challenge. A federal judge in Florida temporarily blocked a bill backed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott last year, saying the law could represent an invasion of privacy and questioning whether it complies with the Fourth Amendment barring unreasonable searches. Scott's administration has appealed the decision. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least three dozen states proposed bills pertaining to drug tests for welfare and food stamp recipients. Arizona and Missouri have joined Florida in passing drug-test bills, though theirs were more narrowly tailored. 

As Pennsylvania tests its approach, other states are moving forward. Indiana's House recently approved a drug-test bill for welfare recipients, as did a Virginia House committee. 

Opponents claim the proposals are unfair and not cost effective. A Feb. 3 brief by the Center for Law and Social Policy, a low-income advocacy nonprofit, cited a 1996 study that found the proportion of welfare recipients with a substance abuse problem is consistent with the proportion of nonwelfare recipients with the same. 

The group said the tests cost between $35 and $76 each to administer, and described them as an "inefficient use of taxpayer money." 

"Since few substance abusers are identified in tests, but many are tested, the cost of catching a drug abuser may run between $20,000 and $77,000 per person," the group claimed. 

The cost-benefit aspect is one Pennsylvania officials will examine in the pilot program. The Pennsylvania program stems from a bill passed last year.