On Tuesday, the Department of Economic Security began requiring urine tests for adult welfare recipients whom officials had "reasonable cause" to believe were illegally using drugs.
The tests are mandated by a new state law that prevents DES from giving cash assistance to adults who test positive for illegal-drug use. Officials believe the bill, which the Legislature passed during its third special session, could save the state $1.7 million a year in cash assistance.
As of October, about 22,000 adults were receiving cash-assistance benefits as part of Arizona's welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
The main goal for lawmakers was for the state to save money in "these dire financial times," said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, a member of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
"We don't want people who are abusing drugs to be on welfare," Kavanagh said, "because that means that the taxpayers are subsidizing and facilitating illegal-drug use."
All adult recipients must now fill out a new three-question statement on illegal-drug use to apply or reapply for DES benefits.
If answers on that statement provide "reasonable cause" of illegal-substance abuse, the department will notify the adult that they must complete a drug test within 10 days, at the state's expense.
Drug-test results are usually available within 48 hours. Those who test positive will be denied cash-assistance benefits for a 12-month period.
In addition, DES officials would administer tests based on reports of possible drug abuse received from law-enforcement or other government agencies, according to DES spokeswoman Kevan Kaighn.
But a spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department said that law-enforcement officers do not currently inquire about welfare status, nor do they correspond with DES officials on matters of illegal-substance abuse, and have no plans to start.
"We do not identify people by their social status, if you will," spokesman Officer James Holmes said. "And we absolutely do not report drug abuse, drug arrests, drug anything to DES. There's just no reason to do that."
The budget committee based the $1.7 million in estimated savings on studies on the number of drug abusers in the population, minus the cost of drug testing.
Kavanagh said lawmakers modeled the new law after Missouri, which introduced a similar bill earlier this year. Several other states have passed laws requiring drug testing for welfare recipients, as the economic climate has forced more to seek assistance from state aid programs.
There were 85,799 such recipients in Arizona in August, a 6.3 percent increase over last year, according to an October JLBC report.
Local and national organizations have taken a stand against drug testing, saying they will cause more harm than good. In a June statement, the Center for Law and Social Policy, a non-profit group in Washington, D.C., called random drug testing of welfare recipients "costly, ineffective" and harmful to families.
DES officials expect the testing will have minimal impact because those convicted of felony drug charges are already disqualified from receiving cash assistance, Kaighn said. Nevertheless, she said the new steps could deter some welfare participants who use illegal drugs.
"We want to ensure the integrity of the program," Kaighn said.
Amy B. Wang
November 25, 2009