State Sen. Richard Alloway doesn’t see the big deal with his welfare-reform bill.
“If we’re giving someone a free taxpayer check, we should be able to ask for something in return,” says the Republican, who’s proposing mandatory drug testing for recipients of public funds.
Which is where the big deal comes in. This bipartisan legislation doesn’t sit too well with the slew of health and law organizations that officially oppose welfare drug testing. And Alloway has been under the gun ever since.
“I’m not sure how that’s a violation of someone’s rights,” says Alloway, who represents Adams, Franklin and York counties. It’s just a condition of getting the welfare check.”
Alloway and 15 Republican and Democrat lawmakers created SB 719 to chip away at the state’s policy of what state Department of Welfare head Gary Alexander has called “when in doubt, hand it out.” The lawmakers’ goal is to make sure those receiving public funds aren’t spending taxpayers’ money on anything but the bare necessities.
Alloway’s bill still has a few holes, about which he and his colleagues are upfront: The lawmakers have yet to decide which drugs to test for and how the testing will be conducted (blood, urine, hair, etc.) And it’s unclear what will happen to the families if the household leader tests positive for drugs and is sent to rehabilitation (Alloway says he would consider continuing payments to families of those being rehabilitated). Oh, and there’s no price tag. Because of that, no one knows if the program would end up costing more than the $39.5 million per year the 288,000 welfare recipients in Pennsylvania currently collect (about $136 per month, per person, on average). When asked about this, Alloway says, “Does it matter if it costs more in that scenario? This is long-term. If we’re helping people get their lives straight, get off drugs and become a better member of society, it’ll cost less in the long run, anyway.”
Here’s what has been solidified in the bill: It would affect those between the ages of 18-65; a random sampling of 5 percent of welfare recipients throughout the state would be subjected to tests every six months; and, according to Alloway, those who fail would be put in a drug rehabilitation program run through the Dept. of Welfare.
But even after the bill’s specifics are hammered out, it will face a tough climb to Corbett’s desk. At least 15 organizations oppose welfare drug testing, including National Advocates for Pregnant Women and the American Civil Liberties Union, which has successfully challenged similar legislation in the past.
“Conducting a drug test is a search,” says Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which is ready to strike if and when Alloway’s bill is passed. “So, for the government to do that, they must have some suspicion. To implement a blanket testing program, that’s going to have some Constitutional problems.”
Some of those who’ve turned to public funds see something more sinister in the prospect of peeing in a cup for Uncle Sam.
“Just because I’m poor doesn’t mean I’m a drug addict,” says Tara Colon, 35, of Kensington. “And a drug addict’s not poor because she’s on drugs. There are plenty of rich drug addicts, that has nothing to do with poverty, it has to do with someone’s emotional state.”
Colon, a mom of four, has been on and off public assistance for the last 15 years. During that time, she says she’s worked in more than 10 blue-collar industries—sometimes several at the same time—but none has provided her a wage high enough to raise her family.
“I’m not saying there aren’t poor folks that are into drugs,” says Colon, who gets by with the help of food stamps, medical and childcare services from the state. “But there are just as many folks well off that are into drugs. I think [testing is] uncalled-for and unwarranted … People have worked their entire lives, have paid taxes, have had children die at war, you’re going to have them take a drug test?”
“That would be harsh, I think,” says Thomas Young, a former addict who now prefers to go by Muhammad. “You’re only going to test the poor, the ones who are trying to make the best of a bad situation?”
Muhammad, who spent a good portion of his life in and out of rehabilitation centers and prison, lives at the New Jerusalem Laura Recovery House on Norris Street in North Philadelphia and is celebrating a year clean this week.
But Alloway maintains that his intentions are pure.
“I’m not all hardcore, you know, ‘Throw them on the streets, they’re no good,’” says Alloway. “That’s not who I am. I recognize a drug addiction for what it is. I just want to help people do better in life, get them the job skills they need to make an impact on society … Sure, this bill is carrot and stick, but I want it to be more carrot.”
If the conservative legislature in Harrisburg has its way, this is just a taste of the domineering moment to turn Pennsylvania welfare reform on its head.
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