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Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 12:01 am

State rep pushes for welfare drug tests


Illinois lawmakers have made several attempts to require drug testing for public assistance recipients over recent years. Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, says his latest proposal is different. This one, he says, is aimed at helping welfare recipients who abuse drugs.

Kay introduced legislation in the past that proposed requiring drug screenings of the federal Tax Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program recipients in Illinois. Under TANF, pregnant women and families can receive up to $432 each month that can help pay for food and other non-medical expenses.

Kay introduced a bill Feb. 13 that would require drug testing for all TANF applicants. It proposes the $16 for the drug test would be taken out of the recipient’s first TANF disbursement. While applicants who passed the test would be permitted to receive benefits, those who failed would have to choose between two options: receive substance abuse treatment or lose benefits.

“It says, look … if there are issues with controlled substance we can provide help,” he said.

Kay’s proposal came a few weeks after another plan, which he has now dropped, that would have simply required passing a drug test to receive benefits.

“The issue in the past has always been … it looks like you’re trying to take money away from needy people. I’m trying to say, ‘You keep it. We want to help you,’” he said.

On the other side of the issue is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has aggressively opposed any attempt to infringe upon the rights of welfare recipients. Ed Yohnka, communications and policy director with the ACLU of Illinois, said the group is staunchly against plans to drug test welfare recipients in Illinois. He argued that states don’t grant other public benefits based on “sacrificing our rights,” he said. An example Yohnka gave was of leaders of corporations that receive tax breaks. “They don’t get drug tested,” he said.

Yohnka also cited studies that have shown there is a similar use of illegal drugs among socioeconomic classes.

“There is this misnomer that if you’re poor, you’re poor because you’ve made bad choices about drug use,” he said.

Kay’s proposal comes after a Florida judge struck down on Dec. 30 that state’s drug testing law on grounds that it was unconstitutional. The judge wrote that identifying one population and suspending individual rights was subjecting the TANF applicants to “suspicionless, warrantless drug testing.”

The ACLU challenged Florida’s law, which was struck down after a 35-year-old U.S. Navy Veteran who used up his veteran benefits applied for assistance, but he didn’t think he should have to take a drug test.

Kay said the legal questions around the issue are complicated, but he emphasized this new plan is not aimed at taking benefits away.

“This is a whole different approach to what I think is a serious problem,” he said.

The ACLU opposes proposals like Kay’s because they infringe on civil liberties and because they stereotype welfare recipients. Yohnka also said the group opposes eliminating benefits due to recipient drug use because “it’s punitive.” He argued that even if an applicant does test positive, removing his or her benefits leaves even greater challenges.

Proposals to require drug tests for applicants have never made it far in the General Assembly. There were at least five bills filed last year that proposed requiring drug tests, including one from Kay. Under his newest proposal, House Bill 5477, those who fail a drug test would be referred to existing state programs, such as substance abuse counseling programs through the Department of Human Services. Yohnka questioned if the state has enough resources for such treatment, but Kay said he thinks the state’s substance abuse treatment resources are underused.

According to information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an average 46,000 Illinois families a month used TANF in 2013.

Contact Lauren P. Duncan at intern@illinoistimes.com.

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