Editor's Note: This story improperly used opinions, facts and language from a Providence Journal article ("Bill would require drug testing for R.I. welfare recipients," March 26, 2010). An Editor's Note was published in the April 14, 2010, Herald. That Editor's Note can be found here.
Rhode Island faces serious challenges that will require substantive solutions, but one member of the General Assembly has a plan that should go back to the drawing board. State Rep. Peter Palumbo, D-Cranston, has introduced a bill that would require drug testing for all adult welfare recipients and their immediate adult family members. Individuals found using illegal drugs would lose monthly cash benefits.
If Palumbo's goal is to further stigmatize the welfare program, this legislation will certainly do the trick. If his goal is to target poor individuals while leaving wealthier beneficiaries of government programs like tax credits off the hook, the measure is spot on. But if he is trying to save the state "a lot of money that's being misused," as he told the Providence Journal last month, the bill is an embarrassment.
For one thing, Palumbo's proposal is blatantly unconstitutional, as it calls for testing all adults on welfare without probable cause. Michigan passed a similar law in 1997, and the law was challenged shortly thereafter. In 2000, a District Court judge issued a preliminary injunction against the measure, calling it "dangerously at odds with the tenets of our democracy." And in 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the ruling, setting a precedent that remains in place today.
As far as savings go, Palumbo might want to take another look at Rhode Island's spending on welfare. The monthly cash payments to welfare beneficiaries come entirely from federal funds. State taxpayers finance only the administrative costs of the program, which probably wouldn't decrease if payments were cut off for a small fraction of welfare recipients. The state's budget certainly needs work, but Palumbo should keep his focus on programs that actually use state dollars.
It's not just that Palumbo's proposal won't generate savings; it may actually drain the state's coffers even further. The Rhode Island Department of Human Services has cited serious concerns about implementation costs, estimating that it would cost between $2.4 million and $7.2 million to test the 8,000 adults in question.
Palumbo said he has heard stories about welfare recipients selling their food stamps to fund their drug habits (he admitted that he has heard only second-hand accounts of such activity, but he told the Providence Journal that he is "convinced that it's happening"). Using public support to buy illegal drugs is clearly reprehensible, and taxpayers and elected officials alike are right to be concerned about where welfare dollars are going. But if poor drug users lose their welfare benefits and still cannot find work, the social costs are likely to be exacerbated.
Rhode Island's poverty rate is hovering above 12 percent, making it the highest in New England. The state's unemployment rate is nearly 13 percent — the third highest in the country. Now is no time to threaten welfare benefits for people who need them the most. If his bill doesn't pass this time around, Palumbo said he will "have to come back another day." Let's hope the General Assembly has enough sense to say no both now and in the future.
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