Revised NC bill still may deter welfare recipients

afrank@newsobserver.comJuly 8, 2013 

  • What is Work First?

    The state’s welfare program, also called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, requires parents and guardians to work or participate in work-related activities in order to receive a monthly cash sum. The program includes short-term training, with a focus on making enough to support dependent children. Most families enrolled in Work First have two years to get off assistance and become independent.

    The program is administered by the state Department of Social Services.

  • What’s happened to the bill?

    • In April, Sen Jim Davis, a Franklin Republican, introduced Senate Bill 594, which required drug testing of any applicant to the state’s Work First program. The bill passed the Senate in April by a 35-15 vote and was sent to the House.

    • In the House, Rep. Dean Arp, a Republican from Monroe, introduced House Bill 392 requiring background checks to receive Work First benefits or food stamps. The bill also required the police be informed if an applicant was a parole or probation violator or had outstanding felony warrants. It passed the House in April in a 106-6 vote and was sent to the Senate.

    • In the House, Senate Bill 594 was sent to a House Judiciary subcommittee. There Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Mount Airy Republican, edited the bill after her staff found that a blanket drug test violated federal law. Those changes were then taken to the Senate where it was combined with House Bill 392. Stevens said the suspicion needed for a drug test could be presented through that bill’s background checks. Gluing the bills together would also allow them to move more “efficiently” through the system, Arp said.

    • The combined bill, House Bill 392, is expected to be voted on in the Senate Tuesday. It would then return to the House for concurrence and a floor vote.

— An effort to require all welfare recipients to pass a drug test to qualify for benefits that passed the Senate earlier this session has been given a facelift, but advocates for the poor say it’s still an ugly bill.

House Bill 392 requires county Social Services employees to do background checks on all applicants for Work First benefits – the state’s welfare program – and food stamps to ensure they’re not parole or probation violators, or have outstanding felony warrants.

It also requires drug testing of any Work First recipient suspected of being a drug user. That provision is a step back from a bill the Senate passed in April that required drug testing for all Work First applicants. Worries over the legality of the Senate bill led lawmakers in the House to insert a new version of the testing requirement into the background checks bill.

“We want law-abiding people to receive the aid before people with felony warrants, or parole and probation violators, or active drug users,” said Rep. Dean Arp, a Republican from Monroe.

But critics say the bill, if it passes, could deter people from applying for Work First. Also called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the program offers short-term cash and job training for people who are looking for work. It is aimed at helping families with young children. Some 21,000 people are enrolled across the state.

“Instead of being the place you come to get support or perhaps intervention when there’s family crises …, the social services eligibility workers (would) now (be) an extension of the police,” said Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat from Rocky Mount. “These people are checking you for warrants … making you have drug tests, as opposed to providing family support. And I think that cultural shift is dangerous.”

The bill is expected to be voted on in the Senate on Tuesday. If it passes, it then goes back to the House for negotiations.

Provisions in place now

David Atkinson, Carteret County DSS director, called the bill an unnecessary burden. “We’re already doing some of this stuff, and by adding the additional layer of drug testing, I’m not sure what’s going to be accomplished,” he said.

Arp said the bill is designed to comply with federal law, which says states cannot give Work First benefits or food stamps to felons with outstanding warrants or to parole violators. Atkinson says DSS uses automated software to search through Department of Corrections’ files, and found felons are simply denied benefits.

The proposed additions would change that – shrinking the gap between social services and police – by requiring DSS to inform law enforcement if an applicant is wanted. .

Critics of the bill see the methods in place as adequate. Written tests and an in-person interview with DSS and substance abuse specialists determine whether an applicant should be referred to a drug or alcohol abuse treatment program. They do not currently drug test, said Barbara Harris, Wake County’s Work First program coordinator, but the treatment program they enroll in as a condition of getting assistance does require regular drug tests.

If applicants agree to participate in the programs, they can still enroll in Work First.

“The notion there is providing them with the help they need,” said Bill Rowe, the NC Justice Center’s general council/director of advocacy.

The current drug-screening process could constitute reasonable suspicion for testing but isn’t enough on its own, said Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Republican from Mount Airy, who worked on the bill.

“People could easily misrepresent things … so we just added this reasonable suspicion, so it’s really not a major deviation from the law,” she said.

The bill does include a provision that allows mental health authorities to set up a program involving abuse treatment providers.

Provisions in question

Eight states have passed similar drug-testing laws for aid applicants, and another 29 have introduced such bills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

While some require suspicion or screening processes, including Tennessee and Missouri, Florida in 2011 enacted a law that made all recipients pass a drug test before getting benefits. Georgia did the same in 2012. Courts struck down Florida’s law earlier this year, but Georgia’s hasn’t been challenged yet.

The N.C. bill, says DSS agents should look for convictions, arrests or outstanding warrants related to drugs within the past three years. If red flags are raised, a drug test will be required.

Applicants will have to pay for the test themselves. The fee was previously estimated to be $100, but the final amount will depend on the type of test, to be decided by the Social Services Commission. Applicants who pass the test will be reimbursed for the fee. Those who don’t would be turned away for one year.

Children whose parents test positive are still eligible for benefits.

While the bill no longer requires blanket testing it continues to worry civil liberty advocates. Sarah Preston, the ACLU of North Carolina’s policy director, said the bill doesn’t specify that warrants and convictions on drug charges are the only ways someone could be tested.

“It doesn’t say that that’s the only thing, it just says that it’s one thing that constitutes reasonable suspicion,” she said.

The language purposefully leaves room for other causes, Stevens said. The Social Services Commission would fill out the rest of the list.

Bryant also is worried about the bill’s language. One stipulation calls for the department to advise every potential applicant that the “required drug screening and testing may be avoided if the applicant or recipient does not apply for Work First Program assistance.”

“It hits me in the gut, that line,” Bryant said. “It’s a signal, like a meta, cultural message of: ‘We don’t want you here. Stay away ... You’re not deserving.’ ”

Frank: 919-829-4870

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