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Drug testing for welfare recipients: Wisconsin poised to join other states

The governor of the 'Dairy State' supports drug testing for adult welfare recipients as a way to get them ready for the job market.

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker spoke at the Republican National Committtee's "Building on Success" winter meeting on January 15, 2015. On January 22, he re-introduced his proposal to mandate drug testing on applicants and recipients of public assistance.

Earnie Grafton/Reuters/File

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On Thursday, Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin announced more details regarding his plans to require welfare recipients to undergo drug testing, as well as reduce the length of time they can receive benefits from five to four years. The announcement comes ahead of his two-year state budget proposal, which will be released February 3.

Milwaukee’s Journal-Sentinel newspaper reported the proposal would only apply to able-bodied adults, not to children or the elderly. Drug testing would be required for all food stamp and public health care applicants. Those applying for unemployment benefits would go through a selective testing process. Gov. Walker said this is an effort to prepare individuals for Wisconsin’s workforce, which currently has 67,000 jobs to fill.

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"We know employers in Wisconsin have jobs available, but they don't have enough qualified employees to fill those positions," Walker said. "With this budget, we are addressing some of the barriers keeping people from achieving true freedom and prosperity and the independence that comes with having a good job and doing it well."

Walker wants to test all FoodShare (food stamps) and BadgerCare (health care) applicants but limit the drug testing for unemployment benefits to certain applicants. If individuals do test positive for drugs, the proposal calls for the state to provide free treatment and job training. Walker believes getting individuals off of government assistance will then free up resources for the state to pay for treatment. However, no details have been released on how the budget will pay for the cost of testing or treatment.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 12 states have passed legislation requiring drug testing for all or certain public assistance recipients and applicants, including Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah. In 2014, at least 18 states proposed legislation or had carryover bills that addressed some form of drug screening process to receive public aid.

Most recently, the Michigan Senate passed a bill to run a one-year pilot program for drug testing welfare recipients. While supporters believe such legislation addresses drug use and reflects responsible spending, critics argue such legislation is “unconstitutional, humiliating, and wasteful.” Attitudes are similar in Wisconsin.

“It aids the stigma that people who are in need, who are poor, are drug users. Which is not the case,” state Representative Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee) told Fox 6 Now. “The people who are most in need, the majority of them want to better their lives. They understand bettering their lives doesn’t include abusing drugs,” Rep. Barnes said.

In 2011, Florida passed a law that required all applicants to pay for drug testing at the time of their application. If negative, they would be reimbursed the cost. If they tested positive, they would be ineligible to receive benefits for one year. In late December 2013, the US District Court in Orlando struck down the law, finding that it “violated constitutional protections against unreasonable searches." That ruling was upheld by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2014.

Supporters say this legislation does not violate rights, nor is its purpose to target those in poverty. Rather, the goal is to hold everyone to the same standards of the working class.

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"This bill has nothing to do with poor people," state Sen. Bruce Caswell (R-Hillsdale) told the Detroit News in response to Michigan’s bill. "This bill has to do with the fact that the working men and women of this state who pay for these benefits are subject to the same requirement [drug testing by employers].”