IT MAY sound Draconian to subject women applying for welfare benefits to a drug test, but legislators pushing the plan have a valid point. Now that the federal government imposes strict time limits on welfare benefits, states need to begin preparing recipients for independence from the moment they enter the welfare system.
For these parents (mostly women), drug abuse can become a huge obstacle to self-sufficiency -- not to mention a threat to the well-being of their children. The idea of screening welfare applicants for drug use would be ludicrous unless the state could offer treatment for those who test positive and are willing to enter a program. But with the transition of Medicaid patients to managed care programs early in 1997, the state will be able to offer treatment by requiring that the managed care groups make it available.
Given that combination, members of the joint legislative committee overseeing welfare reform believe there is an opportunity to put Maryland in the forefront of efforts to come to grips with one of the more serious problems facing welfare reform. Not only are drug abusers unlikely to be capable of holding a job, they almost certainly will not be able to find one. What employer would hire them? Legislators are wise to recognize this as a major threat to the long-term success of efforts to put welfare recipients to work.
The carrot-and-stick plan being proposed is far from perfect. For one thing, there is no way to know whether the programs that will be available to welfare recipients will be long enough and effective enough to help them break a deadly addiction. Another problem is that few drug treatment programs even track their clients long enough to know their long-term rates of success or failure.
Even so, this initiative can send an important signal well before that five-year lifetime limit on benefits comes due. Drug abuse is incompatible with good parenting. Any woman who is abusing drugs while receiving welfare payments to take care of her children needs to hear that message loud and clear.
Pub Date: 12/09/96