Drug-testing welfare applicants often gets the knock that it costs so much and catches so few.
In Kansas, drug testing catches so few because it’s testing so few.
After its first four months, a new Kansas law for testing welfare applicants for drugs is off to a sluggish start, only testing 20 applicants. Four tested positive. Five others refused the test.
The law, passed by the Legislature in 2013, took effect July 1. It was billed as a way of weaning the less affluent off drugs, getting them treatment and job training and helping them out of poverty.
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State officials concede the early numbers are low. But they say testing will increase as staffers become more comfortable with the standards for referring welfare applicants for drug testing.
“It’s important to note that this is the initial year,” said Theresa Freed, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Children and Families, which administers the drug-testing program.
“The criteria that we established was done so in abundance of caution to protect the rights of our clients to ensure the criteria would stand up to likely court challenges we have seen happening in other states,” Freed said in a statement.
Kansas is among at least 11 states that have enacted laws requiring drug testing for public-assistance applicants or recipients.
Missouri has been drug-testing welfare applicants since March 2013. Since then, the state has conducted 655 tests. Only 69 applicants tested positive, but 711 refused the test and were disqualified for benefits.
Lawmakers in Missouri have allocated $336,000 each of the last two years to run the state’s drug-testing program.
Testing in Kansas applies to individuals suspected of using drugs who apply for benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
A number of factors can trigger the testing requirement, including visible drug use, the applicant losing a job because of drugs, a recent drug-related arrest or a completed questionnaire signaling drug use.
Flunking the drug test the first time means losing welfare benefits until drug-treatment and job-skills programs are completed. A second failed test results in a loss of benefits for a year. A third positive test leads to a lifetime ban.
The testing requirement doesn’t extend to people seeking benefits for someone other than themselves, such as a guardian or a grandparent.
The state budgeted about $500,000 for the program out of federal money it receives for public assistance. The money covers the cost of the job-skills and drug-treatment programs.
State officials banked on more than offsetting testing expenses with savings obtained from people disqualified for benefits.
But now those savings — estimated at $1.5 million — have been zeroed out because there have been so few people tested so far.
Critics say the early results show that the drug-testing bill was more about political theater than welfare reform.
They suspect the results are a sign of an understaffed state agency that has scaled back expenses under Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration.
“We have pared these agencies back to the marrow,” said state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat. “They don’t have a lot of people hanging around who have time to implement some of these programs that we pass.”
Freed said the agency fully supports the reasons justifying the drug-testing policy. She said it is a process of “learning what works and what doesn’t.”
“We anticipate as we iron details out … we’ll see an increase,” Freed said in an interview.
A review of several other states that have implemented drug testing for welfare recipients shows that Kansas has gotten off to a much slower start.
In Missouri, which has double the population of Kansas, the state conducted 69 tests in the program’s first four months. In Utah, with a population about equal to Kansas, 84 drug tests were carried out in the first four months.
Kansas Senate President Jeff King was the primary sponsor of the drug-testing bill. He shrugged off the early drug-testing results.
“This is something that is going to take time to implement across the state,” said King, an Independence Republican. “It is impossible to fully evaluate a program that is only four months old. We want to give it time to administratively work.”