Republican Governors Push to Reshape Welfare Programs

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By Damian Paletta and Mark Peters

Officials Advocate for Drug Screening, Other Requirements for Benefit Recipients

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants his state to mandate drug screening for people seeking nutrition or cash assistance.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants his state to mandate drug screening for people seeking nutrition or cash assistance.

A large number of Republican governors are pushing to reshape social-welfare programs with drug testing or other requirements, arguing that the new rules better prepare recipients for employment and assure taxpayers that the benefit money is well spent.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, fresh off his re-election, said he would propose his state join several others in mandating drug screening for people seeking nutrition or cash assistance. Utah Republicans want to require that certain residents allow the state to assist them in finding a job if they want to collect benefits through Medicaid, the health-care program for low-income and disabled Americans. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is proposing Medicaid recipients kick in at least a few dollars a month as a condition for receiving benefits.

Critics say the new welfare requirements, particularly drug screening, unfairly target low-income people and are aimed at cutting recipients off the benefit rolls. Many of the efforts have run into resistance from the Obama administration, though federal courts have also limited the state push.

l.wsjStill, the efforts by Republican-led states are challenging the political and legal boundaries that govern the way government provides assistance to the poor and provide another example of how GOP control of state governments, which grew after the midterm elections, is affecting policy. Congressional Republicans have signaled they want to look at overhauling federal welfare programs next year and may mine the states for ideas, as they did ahead of a major overhaul done in the mid-1990s.

“I support his efforts,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), expected to be a chief architect of any new standards next year, said of Mr. Walker’s push. “We want to give our governors the ability to craft their own proposals.”

Mr. Walker, in an interview, said his state’s drug-screening plan is intended to ensure that welfare recipients are drug-free and eligible for work.

“I can’t tell you how many employers in transportation, even in construction, certainly in health care and other professions who say, ‘We can’t get people to pass the drug test.’ ” said Mr. Walker, who will propose the drug-screening requirement in the coming months.

The drug-test push is part of a wave of changes that Republican governors are eyeing for Medicaid, cash assistance, unemployment and nutrition assistance, programs run jointly by federal and state governments.

Under Mr. Pence in Indiana, low-income participants in Medicaid would have to make monthly payments into a health-savings account, of $3 to $25. The rule, he said, is intended to give recipients a direct financial stake in their health care.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback expanded work requirements and tightened time limits for cash assistance three years ago. Prospective and former beneficiaries are finding work or no longer qualifying for benefits, a spokeswoman for his administration said.

Critics argue the program changes in Kansas are cutting off the poorest of the poor from assistance. Such benefits are crucial for children who need financial support to have a chance of breaking the cycle of poverty, said Karen Wulfkuhle, executive director of United Community Services of Johnson County, which supports social services in the Kansas City suburbs.

Drug-screening rules, though they have disqualified relatively few people from benefits, have proved to be the most contentious. Earlier this month, a federal appeals court struck down a 2011 Florida law that required drug screening for people seeking benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, saying the requirement was unconstitutional and that the state hadn’t demonstrated that recipients have more of a drug problem than the general population.

This year, the U.S. Agriculture Department blocked a drug-screening requirement in Georgia for the state’s food-stamp program, which it oversees.

Most drug-testing programs follow a similar process. Applicants for benefits must fill out a written questionnaire that includes questions designed to determine whether they are considered at high risk for drug use. If so, they then take a urine test, and people who test positive typically receive benefits only if they comply with treatment requirements.

Any children of a disqualified person often can continue to receive assistance, typically overseen by a third party.

At least 10 states have approved drug tests for certain welfare benefits. In more than a dozen others, Democrats, and some Republicans, have successfully blocked drug testing.

Texas state Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat, helped derail a drug-testing requirement in Texas last year, arguing that there was no data to link a higher incidence of drug use among the poor compared with other income groups.

“It’s political grandstanding. I don’t think it’s particularly effective, and it’s constitutionally problematic,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, a Georgia Democrat who opposed efforts in 2012 and 2014 to require drug tests for various benefits. The measures passed both times, but officials haven’t implemented the rules amid legal challenges.

Nationally, the percentage of workers testing positive for drugs ticked up slightly last year to 3.7% after falling for much of the past two decades, according to an index compiled by Quest Diagnostics from more than 7.6 million urine tests it conducted for employers last year.

Among welfare beneficiaries, state screening programs have turned up few positive tests.

In Arizona, which passed a drug-test law in 2009, more than 108,000 people have filled out drug-use questionnaires since 2011, and just two of those who took a urine test have tested positive.

In Missouri, where a Democratic governor signed drug testing into law, close to 70,000 people filled out the questionnaire in the program’s first 19 months, and of those, 1,646 were referred to take drug tests. Sixty-nine people failed and were required to enter treatment in order to receive benefits, while 711 refused to cooperate and were denied them.

Backers of drug tests say the numbers don’t tell the full story of their effectiveness, arguing that the requirement acts as a deterrent to beneficiaries taking drugs and so helps prepare them for employment. Many Republicans have cast the testing as a matter of fairness, arguing taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for benefits used by someone who spends their money to buy drugs.

Democrats who fought the drug-test requirements say the uneven economic recovery has kept enrollment high in programs such as food stamps, making them targets for conservatives who want to rein in government largess.

“It seemed to be an unnecessary singling out or stigmatization of people on public assistance for some period of time,” said Mr. Turner, the Texas lawmaker.

Florida has had the most legal problems with its drug-testing law, which was passed in 2011. The program lasted just four months before a federal judge initially ruled it unconstitutional. Before the court intervened, 2.6% of the 4,086 people screened had tested positive.

States have had different approaches. Maine passed drug-test requirements in 2011, but implementation is on hold while officials debate the program’s legality. North Carolina passed a drug-test law last year, but it was vetoed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who said it was too costly and legally challenging. Though state legislators overrode his veto, he said in an interview that he has no timeline to start testing.

“It has got to be done in a sound strategic way and an affordable way where it doesn’t cost you more than what you would benefit from,” Mr. McCrory said.

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