Pennsylvania planning for drug testing of some welfare recipients

    Pennsylvania officials are moving forward with plans to drug test some welfare recipients, but they say they do not know how much it will cost the state.

    The drug testing requirement was enacted this summer as part of changes to the Pennsylvania welfare code as the Department of Public Welfare was charged with cutting $400 million from its budget.

    The policy requires random drug testing for anyone on food stamps or welfare who has had a felony drug conviction in the past five years.

    In preliminary state estimates, testing was projected to cost the state almost $200,000 a year, even after accounting for any savings achieved by ending benefits for people who fail drug tests. Ken Regal, co-director of Just Harvest, an anti-hunger organization in Pittsburgh, questions the accuracy of the cost estimates, but said the pricetag is not what he is worried about.

    “The drug-testing policy is really just part of a broader philosophy and a broader strategy to treat applicants for public assistance as suspicious and as criminals and to send the message that we don’t want to help you,” Regal said. “It’s about discouraging applications, it’s not about catching ineligible people.”

    State Representative Garth Everett from Lycoming County sponsored a version of the bill and said its goal is not necessairly cost-saving.

    “[It is] first and foremost to provide taxpayers with assuirty that their welfare dollars are not being used to purchase illegal drugs,” Everett said. “And I think the secondary purpose is…if there are folks who have drug problems, to identify them and to get them into treatment programs.”

    The Department of Public Welfare said it is in the early stages of planning, and does not know how soon testing will begin.

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