DURING the great welfare-reform debate of 1996, Republican leadership in Congress sought mandatory drug testing for recipients as a controversial but core plank of their plan to give each state flexibility to design its own path from welfare to work.
They lost that battle, but won their larger goal — ending welfare as an entitlement — when President Clinton signed the landmark legislation.
Since then, the welfare rolls in Washington plunged 45 percent — from an average monthly caseload of 99,376 in 1996 to 54,427 in 2012. Those families used the get-to-work resources of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families — education, job-hunting aid, child care, chemical-dependency treatment — as a springboard, we hope, to a better life.
While some bad ideas of the 1990s have mercifully died — think high-waisted, acid-washed jeans — a handful of Republicans in Olympia are trying to revive former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s misguided idea. The notion that the parents poor enough to need welfare must be sitting around doing drugs all day is offensive.
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Currently, welfare recipients undergo a comprehensive assessment to determine the biggest obstacles to steady work. If it is a drug problem, the parent must get chemical-dependency counseling, or risk losing the cash grant. Last year, 8,755 recipients got inpatient or outpatient treatment. The program is working.
Yet Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, and Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, are pushing bills in the House and Senate to mandate drug testing for recipients who are already on the way to treatment. The Senate version, Senate Bill 5585, had a hearing on Thursday.
Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Shoreline, accurately described it as “a solution looking for a problem,” in a blog post for the House Democratic caucus.
Florida, which had universal mandatory drug testing for welfare applicants, found that just 2.6 percent failed such tests, most commonly for marijuana. (Note to Angel and Benton: Marijuana is now legal in Washington state.) Testing cost more than it saved, and opened Florida to a lawsuit alleging tests were unconstitutional.
In Olympia, Senate Republicans are in power this year, thanks to two fiscally conservative Democrats. Their Majority Coalition Caucus pledged to focus on education and to avoid divisive social issues.
With misguided proposals like this, voters may want drug testing for a different set of state-money recipients — lawmakers.