Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County has launched a program to begin drug tests of some welfare recipients.
Over the next six months, the county will randomly test 20 percent of welfare applicants and recipients who have been convicted of a drug felony in the past five years or are on probation for a drug offense.
It is a pilot to determine if rolling the program out state wide would be cost effective.
“We’re looking to find out will this actually end up costing more than having people receiving benefits that may be using drugs,” said state Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman Anne Bale. “Or will we save money by ensuring that those people who are using drugs are not receiving a benefit?”
Bale said welfare benefits for those who test positive for drug use will be suspended for six months. Three failed tests would leave individuals permanently ineligible for benefits.
The testing was called for in legislation enacted last summer aimed at cutting $400 million from the Department of Public Welfare’s budget.
Depending on costs, Bale said statewide implementation may start in July.
Ken Regal with the Pittsburgh anti-hunger, anti-poverty group Just Harvest is skeptical that a one-county pilot could give an accurate view of costs and benefits statewide.
He said, however, he will be looking to the pilot to answer a different question.
“Is the impact of this discouraging law-abiding citizens? Because what they hear is, ‘Oh, in order to apply for food stamps or welfare benefits, you now need to submit to a drug test.’ ” Regal said. “Even though that’s not going to be the case for the vast, vast, vast majority of applicants.”
Those applying for or receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or cash assistance may be tested.