This past week, the Montana Legislature began deliberations on a bill that would institute drug testing for people who applied for welfare assistance.
Specifically, House Bill 200, introduced by Randall Pinocci, R-Sun River, would require people applying for assistance under the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to fill out a questionnaire regarding drug use. The applicant could then be required to take a drug test if officials determine drug use is likely. Refusal to fill out the questionnaire would mean no assistance.
As an editorial board, we have many times written in support of local programs that provide assistance to our neighbors in need. We’ve supported programs like Food Share, YWCA, Family Promise, the Friendship Center and God’s Love. Many the people in our community, the people we see and interact with every day, take advantage of welfare in order to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables.
These are people who struggle and what HB200 implies is that people who need welfare are more likely to be on drugs than other people receiving government subsidies. This implication isn’t based in fact, or at least no facts that were presented in support of the bill. It just plays on an unfortunate stereotype of the poor.
First of all, let’s look at the program targeted by HB200. The TANF program is intended to be a temporary assistance program for low-income people. Assistance is limited to five years total in a person’s lifetime. The level of assistance is based on income and family size.
But what about all the other government subsidies, both state and federal, received by people in Montana? Why isn’t the Legislature looking at those as well? In Montana, people, communities and businesses get government assistance from a variety of sources and through a variety of means.
There are agriculture subsidies, energy subsidies, subsidized small business loans, federal payment in lieu of taxes to county governments, low-interest loans for infrastructure projects, federal grants for environmental work and historic preservation, and the list goes on. Imagine if someone suggested that all ranchers who receive agriculture subsidies get a drug test? Or that all business owners getting a subsidized loan fill out a drug use questionnaire?
And in a state where we pride ourselves in our hospitality and generosity, this bill sends the wrong message. It is simply contrary to who we are as Montanans. It tells the people in our state who have the least power and influence that they can be a political punching bag when necessary. It says that we are willing to help you, but that help will be given begrudgingly, if it all. It says that if you’re poor, we’ll assume you have questionable ethics and integrity.
Not only is this a slap in the face to the people in our community who need welfare, but also to those who have devoted their lives to serving and helping those in need.
In an email this week, Kellie Goodwin-McBride, director of the Helena YWCA, told us that she’s seeing a decrease in welfare assistance, “more barriers for qualifying for assistance, families going without.”
We believe the welfare system in the state should be fair, accurate and efficient. If there are problems with fraud, they should be targeted and corrected. If the computer system is broken or ineffective, it should also be fixed. But it seems to us that legislators have far more important things to do during their 90-day session than unfairly target the low-income members of our community.