The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

April 10, 2013

Tackle state's real problems

The Daily Item

— Pennsylvania legislators have a host of problems to solve, but that doesn’t stop some of them from inventing new ones.

Take Sen. John Wozniak, a Cambria County Democrat, who is the prime sponsor of legislation that would require all adult applicants for welfare assistance in Pennsylvania to submit to random drug testing. State Rep. Fred Keller, R-85 of Kreamer, is a co-sponsor of a House version of the bill.

This is the kind of grand-standing legislation that plays well with those who see welfare recipients as bums, cheaters and drug abusers who are unworthy of the public’s help, but even Wozniak acknowledges that impression is not accurate.

“There is another reality, that everyone talks about how everyone is a slimy welfare recipient, and in most cases, they are just people who need some help,” he said.

Which begs the question: Why aren’t we treating them that way?

State statistics suggest that drug testing is a waste of money. In 2012, only two people failed the drug tests that were given to 40 convicted drug felons seeking public assistance.

The state paid $30 each or a total of $1,200 for those tests. If the state began to drug test all applicants seeking welfare assistance, costs would skyrocket. The state Department of Welfare gets more than 100,000 applications for Temporary Aid for Needy Families assistance every year. At the $30 a test rate, that adds up to $3 million.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least seven states have passed legislation regarding drug testing or screening for public assistance applicants or recipients (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah). Some apply to all applicants; others require a reason to believe the person is engaging in illegal drug activity or has a substance use disorder; others require a specific screening process.

Florida’s drug-testing program has been stopped by a court challenge. But state data there found that the cost of the drug tests was $45,000 more than any savings realized by ferreting out offenders.

Amy Hirsh, managing attorney for the North Philadelphia Law Center, Community Legal Services, characterized Wozniak’s legislation this way: “Such proposals are wasteful, ineffective, divert attention from real problems and are unconstitutional.”

We agree.

Sen. Wozniak is someone else’s direct report, but Fred Keller represents the Valley.

Rep. Keller, please stop belittling poor people. Tackle something useful instead, something worthy of the power you wield.