Drug tests planned for some Mich. welfare applicants

Program starts in October, but civil libertarians, welfare experts object

May 30, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DETROIT -- In an unusual effort to move more welfare recipients into the work force, Michigan plans a pilot program that would require thousands applying for aid to take drug tests to qualify for benefits.

Starting in October, Michigan welfare applicants under 65 in three locations yet to be chosen will be required to take drug tests or forfeit their benefits. People already receiving benefits at those locations would be randomly tested.

Those who test positive for illegal drugs would be required to get treatment to collect welfare money, and those who refuse treatment would be dropped from the welfare rolls.

Against a tide of opposition from civil libertarians and welfare experts and mixed reaction from welfare recipients themselves, Republican Gov. John Engler explained that the program would help those who needed drug treatment to get it and to obtain jobs.

"The idea is that workplace testing today is so common," Engler said. "This is a tool that will help identify some of the problems that need to be treated."

Michigan was one of the early leaders nationwide in the effort to end the decades-old system of guaranteed welfare benefits and to replace it with time limits and other changes intended to force those on welfare to work.

Since October 1992, when Michigan's welfare changes began, the state's caseload has dropped about 60 percent, to 89,866 families from 225,359, the 14th-largest drop among states, according to federal statistics.

With many of those most able to find jobs already working, Michigan is trying a new approach to welfare. The mandatory drug tests, which other states have considered but rejected, are just one indication of its new direction.

Other initiatives include a plan to reduce fraud by taking computerized fingerprint images of those applying for welfare. The welfare agency also plans to expand its "Project Zero" program to 25 additional welfare offices around the state, bringing to 60 the number of locations offering flexible, expanded social services, such as child care and transportation, with a goal of reducing welfare cases in a given area to zero.

Mandatory drug testing has raised the most concern, especially among civil libertarians, social workers and welfare experts.

Other states have considered similar drug testing programs but have backed away.

Last year, Florida set up a pilot program in two regions to detect drug-abusing welfare recipients. It asks drug-use questions of all applicants, but uses physical drug tests only on those it has reasonable cause to believe use drugs.

Louisiana passed a law in 1997 requiring drug testing for welfare recipients and certain public employees. But after a task force was set up to carry out the law, the state decided instead to require applicants to answer a questionnaire about drug use. Answers to the questions determine whether a drug test is administered.

New York and Maryland planned to require drug tests but found that other types of screening, such as questionnaires, were cheaper and more effective. Four other states -- New Jersey, Minnesota, South Carolina and Wisconsin -- randomly test welfare recipients who have felony drug convictions.

The Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is considering suing the state to challenge the program on constitutional grounds, arguing that the mandatory drug test violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

"The state is starting from the assumption that the poor are criminals," said Kary L. Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. "The state is saying that if you want money for food and shelter, you have to give up the Fourth Amendment rights that others have."

Social workers are concerned that the new program could have unintended consequences.

"It is very demeaning," said Sharon Parks, senior research associate at the Michigan League for Human Services, a nonprofit organization. "It might have a real chilling effect on people even coming in and applying."

Welfare experts object to the program and say it has a number of shortcomings.

"Michigan is the only state in the country that is doing this," said Gwen Rubinstein, director of policy research at the Legal Action Center, a nonprofit organization based in New York that focuses on alcohol and drug policy and tracks drug testing efforts nationwide. "Drug testing often sounds on the surface like a good idea, but it has so many flaws."

Rubinstein said drug testing will not turn up those with alcohol abuse problems, which are more prevalent among welfare recipients. The tests are intrusive, she said, and casual drug users who are able to work will test positive along with addicts who need treatment.

Because testing is also expensive, it can divert money that could otherwise be used for drug treatment and other social services, Rubinstein said.

Sheldon Danziger, an economist and professor of social work and public policy at the University of Michigan, who conducted a study of Michigan welfare recipients, said money used to test for drugs could be put to better use screening for mental health problems that need treatment.

"A much greater percentage of women have mental health problems like depression, anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder than have substance abuse problems," Danziger said.

But Douglas E. Howard, the new director of the state welfare agency, defended his plans.

"Michigan's approach is very unique," Howard said. "It is not just testing; it is testing followed by treatment."

He said the falling welfare caseload in the state dictated a change in direction.

"We're in an economy now where job placement isn't as tough as it was 10 years ago," he said. "The challenge is in job retention."

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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