No drug tests for welfare aid in New Hampshire

When did being poor mean it was OK for state lawmakers to treat you like a common criminal?

On Tuesday, the House Health, Human Services and Elders Affairs Committee took testimony on such a bill (HB 121) filed by two Greater Nashua legislators. If approved, it would require drug testing for all applicants seeking welfare benefits under the state’s Temporary Aid For Needy Families program.

Under the bill – introduced by Rep. Donald Le-Brun, R-Nashua, and Rep. Jeanine Notter, R-Merrimack – welfare applicants would have to pay for the test up front. Those who passed would be reimbursed the estimated $45; those who failed would not.

Applicants who test positive for drugs would be ineligible to apply for welfare benefits for one year, unless they can document successful completion of a substance abuse treatment program recognized by the state Department of Health and Human Services. In that case, individuals would be permitted to reapply in six months.

Sponsors of the controversial bill say the intent is two-fold: to ensure taxpayer money isn’t used to support someone’s drug habit and to identify people addicted to drugs so they can seek treatment.

“There are a lot of people who are using TANF money to buy drugs,” Notter said after the hearing. “How is that helping the kids?”

But opponents had no difficultly coming up with reasons why this punitive bill should be rejected out of hand, starting with the spurious contention that welfare recipients are gaming the system in large numbers.

“It’s unfortunate that there’s such a persistent myth about who uses the TANF program and what people who use the TANF program are like,” said Sarah Mattson, policy director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, which offers legal aid to the poor. “This is a component of that myth to suggest that there are really high rates of drug use (among TANF applicants). It’s just not borne out in the numbers.”

Florida’s experience backs her up. During the four months a similar law was in place in 2011 – a federal court put a stop to it on the grounds that it violated the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches – only 2.6 percent of the applicants (108 of 4,086) failed the test, mostly for marijuana. In fact, the $118,000 the state spent to reimburse the vast majority who passed the test exceeded what it saved in denied benefits.

In New Hampshire, the fiscal note attached to the bill by DHHS assumes that – based on an estimated caseload of 2,670 – anywhere from 2.6 percent (69 applicants) to 8.8 percent (235 applicants) would test positive and be denied assistance. The cost of reimbursing the other applicants? Between $219,153 and $234,052 a year.

Meanwhile, the argument that the bill would do anything to help those who fail the test is similarly suspect. While LeBrun and Notter have made this point part of their sales pitch, the language in the bill suggests otherwise.

The only state “assistance” called for is handing out a list of state-approved substance abuse treatment centers in or near their home communities. That’s it. No treatment. No reimbursement for the drug test. Just a list – like picking up a travel brochure at a welcome center on your way to the White Mountains.

The House of Representatives should reject this ill-conceived bill at its first opportunity.