Welfare changes move through N.C. General Assembly

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — A pair of bills that would require welfare recipients to undergo drug tests and criminal background checks advanced Tuesday in the N.C. General Assembly.

A House bill that received bipartisan support on the full floor requires all county Department of Social Services offices to perform background checks to bar applicants and recipients with outstanding warrants or other active violations from welfare and food stamp programs. A Senate bill that cleared a committee vote over the objections of Democratic lawmakers and advocates would require drug screenings for welfare applicants and recipients at their own expense.

Applicants and recipients in the state's Work First program who pass the screening would be reimbursed in future assistance payments. Those who fail could reapply in a year after completing a treatment program at their own expense and passing a drug test.

Work First provides cash assistance and job training through the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.

Currently, substance abuse professionals in county social services departments conduct interviews and look for signs of addiction with applicants and current recipients but do not conduct drug tests. If those employees diagnose a substance abuse problem the applicant or recipient must enter a treatment program and submit to drug testing to continue qualifying for benefits.

N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon and the bill's primary sponsor, said the measure prompts people to seek help for substance abuse problems without overburdening others.

"My presumption is if you have the money to buy drugs you have the money to buy food and to support your family," he said. "My presumption is that if you're going to test negative for a controlled substance you'll gladly take the test because you know you'll be reimbursed."

Bill Rowe, director of advocacy for the North Carolina Justice Center, said studies show drug use is no more common among welfare recipients than within the general population, and federal courts have invalidated similar laws in other states.

Most recently, a federal appeals court struck down a Florida law requiring drug screenings, finding it violated constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure and presented a slippery slope toward drug testing to receive any kind of government benefit.

Rowe also said the bill would fail to make a dent in addiction because it takes away the emphasis on identifying those with serious addictions in favor of initial screenings that will ensnare minor users.

N.C. Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, argued the bill unfairly targets poor people who can't pay for drug tests, which Rowe said could range from $25 to $150.

Sarah Preston, the policy director for the ACLU of North Carolina, said similar measures in other states have actually cost more to administer than they save in granting benefits.

Costs for reimbursing those who pass drug tests aren't yet known, but Davis said those will be provided at the bill's next hearing in the Senate Health Care Committee.

The bill requiring background checks for welfare and food stamp recipients passed an initial vote in the full House 96-22 after its sponsor offered an amendment ensuring counties won't face additional costs.

Food and Nutrition Services, the formal name for the food stamps program, provides debit cards to low-income families.

Federal law forbids states from giving public assistance benefits to fleeing felons, those with active violations or outstanding warrants, and the bill requires DSS offices to inform law enforcement agencies if a background check indicates those types of violations.

Opponents have expressed concerns that the bill creates an unsafe environment for DSS employees and burdens them with new responsibilities. Supporters counter that the bill helps ensure compliance with federal law. They also argue that the new requirements will become routine for workers and help the justice system through greater coordination.

The bill was held up over questions about new potential costs, but Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union and the bill's primary sponsor, said the state will pay $144,000 to equip computer systems with technology to conduct background checks and local branches won't face other expenses.

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