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Mitchell: State’s Plan to ‘Help Druggies’ Has Abysmal Results

Last year Mississippi lawmakers insisted it was essential to start drug-testing welfare applicants. “We must help them overcome their addictions,” was the altruistic reason.

Almost a year passed. Oops. Guess how many people out of 5,578 applicants have been “helped.”

Eight.

And the “help,” of course, was to reject their applications for free money.

Mississippi was not alone in its noble quest. Well over half the states have considered drug-testing applicants for assorted benefits. Nearly two dozen states passed laws. Mississippi’s was modeled after Utah’s.

Results nationwide mirror the experience here: The screenings have cost more than they saved.

Truth be told, these laws were not about helping druggies. Not at all.

They were a legislative response to rising tension between working-class America and an increasingly visible class of citizens who, in polite terms, are leeches.

This latter group games public and private charities for handouts. Happy with sustenance-level lives (and sometimes a bit better than sustenance), these folks receive free food, free housing, free health care, free utilities (including cell phones), pocket money and more.

The image is that these folks sit on their porches swilling beer (or smoking pot) and laugh at suckers who show up for jobs and paychecks.

Working people are angry. Their view is that their jobs in construction, farming, manufacturing or stocking the shelves at the grocery store are barely enough to keep them and their families fed. Having to cough up taxes for leeches who never worry about the cost of a doctor visit or how much electricity they use is infuriating.

An elite element of American society ignores this situation and the tensions it creates. Many politicians relay on the culture of dependency for re-election.

That’s not healthy.

But it’s equally unhealthy for lawmakers to respond with broad answers and empty solutions that cater to prejudices.

In Mississippi, one program was targeted for drug screenings. It is TANF, which stands for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. TANF is one of the smaller programs — paling in comparison to SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid or Unemployment. The benefit for a family of three is $170 per month. (That’s about $1.90 per day per recipient. Just guessing, but that may not buy a lot of crack.)

The law went into effect last July 1. In turn, the state chose a questionnaire created by the SASSI Institute (Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory) to be completed by all applicants. (According to the Mississippi Center for Justice, the institute says its test should not be used as a general screening tool, but SASSI provided training and has accepted state payments of $2 per test.)

Of the 5,578 TANF applicants (Mississippi has 720,000 residents living below the federal poverty line), the screenings indicated 74 were likely druggies. The state paid $43 each for their drug tests and, through April, eight tested positive. That’s between one and two tenths of one percent.

The cost of the screening applications and drug tests totals $21,846, which the Mississippi Center for Justice correctly ciphers as enough to pay one month of benefits to 129 families.

Other states have had similar results.

To the argument that some may now self-select against applying because they know drug tests will knock them off the eligibility list, there’s this: The number of applications year-to-year has not changed.

So where is the solution? How does a state really help the truly needy while discouraging the leeches?

The answer is not in the halls of the Legislature; it’s in the county offices. Caseworkers must be selected and empowered to counsel applicants and use their discretion about awarding benefits of all types. Formulaic approaches simply do not work because the leeches learn the formulas and how to skirt them. There must be penalties, serious penalties, for fraudulent applicants and, importantly, for those who profiteer on the backs of the poor through false Medicaid billing, charging to exchange SNAP benefits for cash, operating slum housing and assorted other methods.

What lawmakers can do is devote their time and attention to crafting job-friendly communities. Some may choose a lifestyle of dependence regardless, but it’s more likely that dependence is a default — a path chosen in the absence of opportunity or other alternatives.

What’s clear — and supported by evidence — is that while, “We’ll drug-test ’em,” may have won applause from the working class in a campaign speech, it hasn’t changed reality.

Freeloaders are still at it with little to fear. Exploiting the poor continues, too. A law that was supposed to “help,” has not.


 

Charlie-Mitchell-mugshot-2013-200x300Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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