With passage of HB 155 on the last day of the 2012 Utah Legislature Thursday, and with the likely signature of Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah adds drug testing to certain recipients of state support payments.
It's an attempt to increase the effectiveness of welfare dollars and directly aid citizens, rather than supporting their bad habits with public money.
Most applicants for welfare under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (a reform from the 1990s) won't be very worried about the reach of the nanny state. They are, after all, asking for help. They will have to fill out a questionnaire that assesses the likelihood of a drug addiction.
If the result of the written test indicates in the positive, a drug test will be required, paid for by the state. If the test then comes back positive, the applicant can still get welfare benefits by participating in a drug abuse treatment program, which HB 155 also says may be paid for by the state.
The cost of the drug testing to the state would be about $169,000 -- not a meaningful amount in the grand scheme of things. This bill sounds like a sensible way to run a welfare program, one whose objective is to get people back on their feet and employed.
Pre-employment drug tests are routine for private businesses, so the addition of a drug test as part of state employment counseling is simply common-sense preparation for a job. Besides, the ordinary taxpayer doesn't want to subsidize somebody's drug habit.
Treatment programs are widely thought of as a humane, smart and cost-effective way to deal with substance abuse.
Applicants already have to meet various eligibility requirements, and there are already strings attached. HB 155 simply adds another string.
Unfortunately, things are not always simple. The new law could whack a hornets nest of privacy issues. The rise of drug testing during the past two or three decades has set some people's teeth on edge.
Two states in recent years have tried to test welfare recipients for drugs, and both attempts were beaten back in court. Even before Utah's bill was written, it had attracted the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, with ACLU of Utah attorney Marina Lowe expressing concern about unreasonable searches prohibited by the Constitution.
That seems a stretch. Nobody's forcing a person to apply for welfare, and HB 155 does not paint all applicants as likely drug users. It ingeniously uses a pre-test questionnaire for all applicants whose purpose is to determine whether they need additional help in preparing for jobs.
Really, how much of an invasion of privacy is it to submit to a drug test in this context when you're going to have to do it with the prospective employer anyway? This is an ounce of prevention to avoid a pound of cure.
One panicky argument is that if parents don't get benefits because of the new drug screen, their children will suffer. There is some validity to this. At the same time, children may be harmed if an addicted parent refuses to enter a treatment program and thereby disqualifies himself from benefits eligibility.
Should society just look the other way on grounds that a drug-addicted parent is better than no parent? Good question.
Reaching such families is beyond the scope of this particular welfare program, which is OK -- no single program will fix all the problems in society. There are a lot of other charitable programs out there, public and private, with their own objectives and methods.
Instead of sitting on its hands for fear of offending someone or failing to solve every problem, the 2012 Legislature improved this one program. That seems a good thing.
Is Utah on a slippery slope toward the destruction of poor families, or is it leading the way to a better future for them?