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July 29, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

If goal is recovery, why stop drug testing at welfare recipients?

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Sen. James Settelmeyer speaks during the first day of the 2011 legislative session Monday, February 7, 2011 in Carson City.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Here is what happened when Florida started drug-testing its welfare applicants:

Of 4,086 applicants between July and October 2011, 108 tested positive, or 2.6 percent, with an additional 40 canceling the test. That rate is less than one-third the estimated drug use among Floridians overall.

Got that? Welfare applicants were far less likely to use drugs than the rest of the population.

And despite the few who canceled their test, overall, the threat of a drug test had no appreciable effect on the number of applicants, according to an internal state government document obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union when it sued the state, challenging the constitutionality of the law.

Because the tests cost $30 each, and because Florida reimbursed applicants who tested negative, the law wound up actually costing the state money. Plus, a federal judge temporarily halted the law because it was in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.

So, all in all, an embarrassing failure.

But ideas can be zombies, especially in Nevada. So here’s Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, offering up our own welfare drug-test bill, Senate Bill 89, which would deny welfare benefits as well as food stamps and Medicaid.

Settelmeyer told my colleague Cy Ryan that his intention is to help people get straight, which is why he included a provision that would allow an applicant who failed the test to enter drug rehab and receive public assistance while there, with another test scheduled 30 days later.

Good plan, if rather patronizing. Except there’s a severe and chronic shortage of treatment beds, which would have been worsened if Settelmeyer had his way last session — he voted against renewing more than $600 million in taxes that were set to expire. Where do you suppose they would have found the money? I’m guessing drug treatment beds would have been on the chopping block.

There’s a false idea I sometimes hear from readers and the occasional politician that some significant portion of the population is welfare-dependent. (Some seem to think it might even be as high as 47 percent!)

In fact, since President Bill Clinton signed the big welfare reform bill in 1996 that placed limits on how long you could remain on welfare, the national caseload dropped 50 percent from 3.94 million families in an average month to 1.95 million by 2011, according to Pamela J. Loprest of the Urban Institute.

With 310 million people living in America, you can see the percentage of people on welfare is quite small. In Nevada, fewer than 30,000 adults and children get welfare, or what’s officially called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. That’s 1 percent of us.

There’s also a belief the numbers have surged since we elected a foreign-born Muslim socialist president whose goal is to make everyone dependent on government because he’s a secret anti-colonial Maoist, or something.

Welfare rolls have gone up since the recession but still remain below 2005 levels, before the recession.

It’s true that food stamp enrollment and Medicaid and unemployment recipients have increased significantly in Nevada, but that’s because in 2007 we entered the worst recession since the Great Depression. Food stamp enrollment increased 128 percent in Nevada between 2007 and 2010, but that's largely due to the fact that the unemployment rate tripled. Historically, food stamp and other anti-poverty enrollments increase during recessions and decrease during expansions. Go figure.

If Settelmeyer’s real goal is to help people get straight, why stop at welfare recipients? What about farm subsidy recipients, sometimes known as “welfare cowboys"? Why not test Medicare and Social Security moochers? Or state employees?

Or legislators?

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