Raleigh, N.C. — Even though a bill calling for some welfare applicants to pass a drug test before receiving benefits still has to go through the House, advocates for the poor are already gearing up to challenge the idea in court.
The measure, which passed the Senate Monday night, would require those seeking Work First benefits to pay for the drug tests. If the tests are negative, applicants would be reimbursed for the tests; if they test positive, they would be ineligible for benefits.
"Receiving cash assistance is not a basis for a violation of the Fourth Amendment," Tazra Mitchell, a public policy fellow for the left-leaning North Carolina Budget & Tax Center, said Tuesday.
Mitchell said the proposal is unconstitutional, noting courts invalidated a similar plan in Michigan.
"We're going to let the judge decide whether it's unconstitutional or not. I don't know that," said bill sponsor Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon. "I know this is a problem, and unless we get serious about addressing it, it's never, never going to get better."
The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union called the bill "cruel, costly and blatantly unconstitutional."
"If a citizen truly has a substance abuse problem and needs help, the state should help to get that person into treatment, not simply kick them and their children off of crucial support services," Sarah Preston, policy director for the ACLU, said in a statement.
Mitchell noted that the legislation doesn't ensure that people who test positive receive any drug treatment, while current state law requires drug treatment as a condition of receiving Work First benefits.
Still, Davis said, requiring an upfront drug test would "help children grow up in a drug-free home."
"We think it's going to be discouraging to those people who know they're going to test positive to not apply for those benefits because they don't want to lose the money," he said. "You have to have some skin in the game."
Mitchell said most of the people affected by the proposal don't have the "skin" to pay the $100 fee for the drug test.
One man who recently enrolled in Work First told WRAL News that he doesn't mind taking a drug test, but the upfront cost would prevent him from taking part in the program, which supports him and his two daughters.
Almost 24,000 people in North Carolina are enrolled in Work First, which provides cash payments to people looking for jobs that targets the parents of young children. The state could be liable for up to $2.4 million in reimbursements for negative tests.