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Public speaks out against welfare drug testing

CHARLESTON, W.Va, — The House of Delegates held a public hearing Thursday on whether those receiving public assistance should be required to pass a drug test.

House Bill 2021 restricts those convicted of drug crimes from receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, also known as TANF, but gives them a chance to complete rehabilitation programs and prove they are drug free.

The bill is not designed to prevent children from receiving assistance due to a parent’s status, but instead requires another designee be assigned to receive the assistance on behalf of the child.

The House Committee on Health and Human Resources held the public hearing Thursday afternoon at the state Capitol. Only eight people signed up to speak, all opposing the bill.

Sam Hickman, executive director of the West Virginia chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said the bill runs counter to the beliefs and mission of social workers by labeling people in need as potential criminals.

“The majority of people use assistance as it was intended,” he said. “If given those resources, people can become self-sufficient.”

Cassie Burdyshaw, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, said the bill represents “an unconstitutional intrusion on an individual’s right to privacy.”

Burdyshaw said similar laws in Michigan and Florida have been unsuccessfully defended in court. In order to comply with the 4th Amendment, the state would need to show probable cause and secure a warrant for the testing, or prove there was an immediate need for the testing due to a public safety concern.

In both instances, HB 2021 fails that test and would likely lead to costly legal battles for West Virginia, Burdyshaw said.

The bill “is a misguided policy based on the premise that poor people are more likely to be drug abusers than other members of society,” Burdyshaw said, calling it “a demeaning and false stereotype.”

Sean O’Leary, a fiscal policy analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said similar programs have proven to be “a costly and ineffective method of preventing drug abuse” and one that “targets only the poor.”

Jim McKay, state director for Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia, said targeting “vulnerable families” will ultimately trickle down to children despite the bill’s attempts to protect them. Any interruption of services will stress families and cause children to be denied the help they need.

“We know many of our children are hanging on by a thread,” McKay said, “and we do not want to take any action that cuts one of those threads.”

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