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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published February 04 2013

North Dakota bill pushes drug tests for welfare recipients

BISMARCK – A requirement for individuals to take a drug test before receiving federal temporary aid should be seen as an incentive, not a penalty, according to some lawmakers.

But advocates for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in North Dakota said those looking for temporary assistance are already faced with humility, and a drug test is just another embarrassing and costly hoop that may be unconstitutional.

Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake, introduced House Bill 1385, which would make an individual ineligible for temporary assistance for one year if they test positive for illegal substances. A second offense will make them ineligible for three years. The bill would reimburse an individual if they test negative.

“I wish there was an incentive out there that these folks would realize they have to be accountable to carrying out a meaningful life,” Johnson told the House Human Services Committee.

The federal welfare program provides cash assistance to qualifying low-income households with needy children. So far, seven states have enacted and 41 states total have introduced similar legislation, Johnson said.

Opponents to the bill argue steps already are in place to screen individuals applying, and if the bill were passed in its current form, there may be a large cost of defending the law against constitutional challenges.

Gress said individuals have to go through a rigorous screening with an employment contractor.

Vickie Schmidt, president of Schmidt and Associates in Fargo, a firm that specializes in drug testing, said she is seeing more state agencies and programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families requiring a drug screening to qualify for the services.

She said in a phone interview that she has worked closely with many state agencies in administering drug tests to prove eligibility for various programs.

A test can take as little as 10 minutes, she said, at a total cost of $35 for a rapid drug-screening test.

But Rep. Kathy Hogan, R-Fargo, illustrated the embarrassment drug tests bring to those who apply.

The former director of Cass County Social Services spoke in opposition, telling the committee how often she would sit and listen to people in need of temporary assistance.

“They were distraught, embarrassed and didn’t want to be there,” she said.

She said single pregnant women make up the largest segment of beneficiaries who will face many challenges and that “adding one more hurdle and embarrassment is really unfair to the woman.”

Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the bill hopes to keep the integrity of the TANF program and wouldn’t overburden the system or individuals applying.

“I don’t see the humility,” Kempenich said. “You hit this point, I don’t see where a drug test is a big hurdle to get over if that’s something you actually need.”

To qualify for temporary assistance, monthly income from wages, child support, Social Security or other sources must be within income limits.

The temporary assistance benefit for a family of three is $427 per month, according to Carol Cartledge, director of the Economic Assistance Policy Division for the DHS. For a household to be eligible for benefits, the household income must be at or below 25 percent of the federal poverty level, which is an annual gross income of $5,124 for a household of three.

Trina Gress is the vice president for Community Options for Residential and Employment Services, who works with 46 of the 53 counties in North Dakota to determine eligibility for temporary assistance. She said only 102 of 1,524 individuals in 2012 reported a history of using drugs.

As of December 2012, Cass County had 266 families receiving benefits, Grand Forks County had 116, and Stutsman and Stark counties had 15 each.

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