LUMBERTON — Beginning Monday, applicants for Work First, a welfare program that provides cash and job training, will have to pass a drug test before receiving benefits.
“We have approximately 50 new applicants for this program a month,” said Sandra Cox, a program manager with the Robeson County Department of Social Services. “We have approximately 750 recipients that will be screened over the next year that will be potentially affected by this.”
Work First is North Carolina’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program. Under the program, parents get short-term training and other services that help them find jobs and make them self-sufficient. Most families move out of the program in about two years.
The bill, which became law in September 2013 after legislators overrode Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto, requires local social services departments to mandate a drug test for most Work First applicants and beneficiaries. Those who pass the screening would be reimbursed for its cost, while those failing could be reimbursed for the cost of the test if they successfully complete a treatment program for substance abuse.
Cox said that those in Robeson County required to submit to drug testing will have it done at Scotland Memorial Hospital. She said she does not know the cost of the test because that is the responsibility of the state Department of Health and Human Services.
“I think it is great to require the drug testing,” Cox said. “This is not designed to be negative. The whole purpose is to make the benefit recipient self-sufficient and able to help their family. One can’t be self-sufficient until they are free of substance abuse.”
Cox said that county Department of Social Service workers already ask applicants a number of questions during the screening process to see if there is a substance issue, and if one appears the applicant is required to see a counselor.
During the past few years several states have enacted some kind of drug testing for those receiving government assistance such as food stamps. Most polls show support for drug testing of welfare recipients.
“It’s good public policy,” said state Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat who represents Robeson County. “I don’t think by drug testing we are denying those benefits who really need them. We are just making sure that tax dollars are being spent in the right places.
“Ultimately, this will help strengthen the family,” Graham said. “The benefits will be being used appropriately.”
Supporters of drug testing argued in 2013 that it is needed to ensure that those receiving benefits are not using money from taxpayers to buy drugs. They also said drug testing is often required by those seeking jobs in both the public and private sectors.
“This is the same test that anyone looking for a job takes,” said state Rep. Ken Waddell, a Democrat from Columbus County whose district includes parts of Robeson County. “I couldn’t see why there was so much controversy in this bill. You want benefits to go where they are most needed. You have to be careful how the benefits are given out.”
State Rep. Ken Goodman said it makes sense to test for drugs.
“It’s just seems common sense,” he said. “If someone is taking drugs, they shouldn’t be eligible to receive benefits.”
Opponents argue that it is an unfair not to test everyone who is applying to participate in a state or federal government benefits program; the cost to some individuals would result in financial hardship; and the state would find the cost of testing all applicants to far outweigh the number of individuals found to be substance abusers.
State Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat from Scotland County whose district includes part of Robeson County, was the only member of Robeson County’s legislative delegation to vote in 2013 to sustain the governor’s veto. He argued that drug testing of one group of benefit recipients and not others was unfair. He also warned against the cost of drug testing to the state.
This week, however, Pierce said that he hopes the legislation will work to weed out those benefit recipients whose substance abuse problems could eventually hurt children and other family members.
“Now that it’s the law of the land, I hope it will work to strengthen our families,” Pierce said. “Maybe it will work to get help for those abusing drugs before it becomes a problem for the individual or family members.”
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.