Welfare recipients would need to be tested for illegal drugs — and come up clean — if they want to receive continued benefits under the terms of one bill designed to balance the state budget.
Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said the provision might cost some money, at least initially, because the cost of the testing would be borne by the state Department of Economic Security. He said, though, it might save taxpayer funds in the long run.
But Pearce said that money is only part of what’s behind the plan. “There’s a moral issue here,” he said. “If you’re getting taxpayer benefits, and this isn’t money you’ve earned, you’re getting free stuff. The minimum ought to be that you ought to not be somebody that’s engaged in criminal activity.”
Beyond that, Pearce said he believes that the requirement would be “an incentive to folks to clean up their act.”
“A lot of the folks that are in desperate need are (that way) because they have a substance abuse problem,” he said. “So I’m hoping that this will drive them to get help — or at least protect the taxpayer from funding folks who need to get their act together.”
The specific welfare program is formally known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. It is designed to provide both financial help and work opportunities. While recipients are required to get work within two years of being ready, single parents with young children are exempt if they cannot find adequate child care.
Pearce said he does not believe that cutting aid to the parents will hurt the children. He said drug abuse harms families in both abuse and in addicts spending money on drugs instead of necessary items.
Senate Minority Leader Jorge Garcia, D-Tucson, said he is not convinced that any cost savings to the state will make up the several million dollars a year he believes the testing will cost. Nor does he believe that the threatened loss of a welfare check will result in addicts deciding to quit. “It’s just one more hurdle people in need have to jump through,” Garcia said of a testing requirement.
The required test would not check for alcohol. “Alcohol is a legal drug,” Pearce said. He said that makes it impossible to prove whether someone has an alcohol problem as opposed to just having had a beer at lunch.
About 84,000 people in 38,500 households, including 63,000 children, are receiving TANF funds, according to DES. DES spokeswoman Liz Barker Alvarez said she believes testing TANF recipients is permitted by federal law. She said DES is analyzing the measure “to determine how it could be implemented to achieve the expected savings.”