TOPICS > Politics

To Receive Welfare, Should Drug Test Be Required?

March 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Since the recession hit, welfare applications have soared in Colorado. Some states have proposed tightening welfare eligibility, in part to deal with limited state budgets. One emerging trend across the country: requiring recipients to pass a drug test. Ray Suarez reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Utah passed a law this month requiring those on public assistance to take drug tests. Half of the states are considering similar measures.

Ray Suarez reports on the effort in Colorado.

RAY SUAREZ: The day begins early for Mimi Ortiz.

MIMI ORTIZ, mother: What’s going on at school today?

RAY SUAREZ: A mother of three, Ortiz has known the hectic life of a single parent since she dropped out of school at 17.

MIMI ORTIZ: And then I will be here about 4:30.

RAY SUAREZ: With no high school diploma, Ortiz has worked low-paying jobs and struggled to make ends meet. In January, she decided to apply for welfare benefits known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

MIMI ORTIZ: I use the cash to pay for my rent, for my lights, my phone, for gas. And that’s pretty much it.

RAY SUAREZ: Since the recession hit and jobs have become more scarce, welfare applications have soared in Colorado, where Mimi Ortiz lives. the number of recipients has nearly doubled since 2008.

Now some states have proposed tightening welfare eligibility, in part to deal with limited state budgets — one emerging favorite, requiring welfare recipients to pass a drug test. At least 25 states put forth proposals this year to require some form of drug testing or drug screening, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bill’s sponsor in Colorado is Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg.

JERRY SONNENBERG (R), Colorado state representative: This population is the population we’re trying to get back to work and trying to get them to be productive, so they can produce for their family and be better advocates for their family. And you can’t do that if you’re on drugs. You can’t get a job if you’re on drugs.

RAY SUAREZ: The issue gained national attention recently when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney endorsed the concept.

MITT ROMNEY (R): My own view is, it’s a great idea. People who are receiving welfare benefits, government benefits, we should make sure that they’re not using those benefits to pay for drugs. And I think it’s an excellent idea.

RAY SUAREZ: Mimi Ortiz replies, don’t assume that I’m a criminal because I’m poor.

MIMI ORTIZ: I feel offended because — because I’m getting welfare. You know, they want to assume that I do drugs or I drink. And I don’t do that at all. I don’t have time in my daily life to — to do this. And this — I’m not — I wouldn’t be a good influence on my children.

WOMAN: What’s the appropriate way to dress for an interview?

RAY SUAREZ: Like hundreds of welfare recipients, Ortiz comes to this job training center called CWEE, Center for Work, Education and Employment, as part of her welfare-to-work requirement.

Now after two months, Ortiz is one test away from her GED. Annually, more than half these recipients move on to jobs.

CWEE’s executive director, Laurie Harvey, has worked with single mothers for 30 years.

LAURIE HARVEY, executive director, Center for Work, Education and Employment: They are really putting together an amazing time management and incredible motivation and such an interest in moving forward. And so the idea of drug testing just doesn’t seem to make any sense to me.

RAY SUAREZ: The drug testing proposals vary from state to state. In Colorado, welfare recipients would need to pay for the drug test. If it proves they’re clean, they would be reimbursed.

But national studies show welfare recipients are actually less likely to abuse drugs than the general population, a fact welfare recipient Elexis Martinez Aragon says is overlooked.

ELEXIS MARTINEZ-ARAGON, welfare recipient: I can understand they want their — they want to know that their tax money dollars are going to something worth it. But they are labeling us to be people that are drug addicts. I mean, we’re asking for assistance, not judgment.

RAY SUAREZ: That’s exactly the argument made by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is challenging the proposals. Denise Maes is director of public policy for ACLU Colorado.

DENISE MAES, director of public policy, ACLU Colorado: We find the measure to be simply unconstitutional, an unconstitutional search on an individual for no reason, no basis whatsoever.

JERRY SONNENBERG: It’s no different as far as an invasion of privacy as it is in the private sector or in government as a condition of employment. We have to do drug tests for that. I don’t see any difference in having to do drug tests for a condition of your welfare or your TANF payments.

RAY SUAREZ: That message has hit a popular note with some in the general public.

JULIAN RAMOS, supporter of drug tests: I think they should take a drug test. I think that if — you know, if a drug test is required, I think they should take it because you know for sure then the help they’re receiving or whatever will be for the betterment of a child.

DENISE MAES: When the economy gets bad, we look for, you know, the spooky person, the foul person. And it’s always — you know, we’re more anti-immigrant. We’re more anti-welfare recipients. We’re more — we’re just more anti-poor people generally. In times of hard economic times or recessionary periods, that’s what we do. And it’s unfortunate.

RAY SUAREZ: Colorado’s proposal, now under review by the Appropriations Committee, is likely to face an uphill battle in a state with a Democratic senate and governor.