DSS says welfare drug testing would up workload in Sampson

Chris Berendt Staff Writer

August 20, 2013

In one of his first two vetoes, Gov. Pat McCrory blocked a drug-test requirement for certain welfare applicants, which local Department of Social Services officials said would negate legislation that would “greatly increase” the workload in Sampson.

The Republican governor, in carrying out his formal objections to legislation approved by the GOP-led N.C. General Assembly, said parts of the welfare testing bill were “unfair, fiscally irresponsible and have potential operational problems” and wouldn’t help people stop taking drugs.

“I think the governor was right,” said Rep Larry Bell (D-Sampson). “I don’t think we should have mandatory drug testing for everybody. You should impose a fine on them and make them pay it. You have people working in those offices who are supposed to look for that type of thing, any type of fraudulent activity. To make everybody have to go through that kind of stuff, I think that’s overstepping — and we should avoid that.”

The welfare bill would have directed state Department of Health and Human Services to administer a drug test to any applicant to or recipient of the Work First welfare program who the agency “reasonably suspects is engaged in the illegal use of controlled substances.” A person who tests positive for drugs would have to pay for any substance abuse program or retest they’d be required to participate in should they want to reapply for benefits soon.

The current law already requires local social service agencies to screen for substance abusers but no drug testing is required. Supporters of the bill said people with drug problems shouldn’t be getting money from the state they could use to buy drugs instead of food and clothing for their families.

Reached Monday, Sampson County Department of Social Services officials said the agency was aware that the governor recently vetoed House Bill 392, titled “Warrant Status/Drug Screen Public Assistance.” Agency program managers, in response to the Sampson Independent’s queries, drafted a response on behalf of the agency.

“If not vetoed, drug testing together with completing criminal background checks, where not already required, would have greatly increased our workload at DSS,” the statement from DSS director Sarah Bradshaw and program managers read. “We had not yet studied the potential fiscal impact prior to learning of the veto.”

In Sampson County, Work First caseloads have numbered between 123-133 between October 2012 and May 2013, with multiple people involved in some cases. In June, the most recent statistics available through the N.C. Division of Social Services, Sampson had 109 active Work First cases involving 218 individuals.

North Carolina’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, often called Work First, is based on the premise that parents have a responsibility to support themselves and their children. Through Work First, parents can get short-term training and other services to help them become employed and self-sufficient, but the responsibility is theirs and most families have two years to move off Work First family assistance.

“Where intervention strategies need to be implemented to improve outcomes for individuals and families, such as through our Child and Adult Services Programs as well as Work First Employment Services, being aware of substance abuse and addiction is a first step,” Sampson DSS officials said. “Drug testing of individuals in a manner that might discourage those seeking assistance could be detrimental to families and create an obstacle to intervention.”

McCrory’s office said drug testing in welfare programs in Utah, Arizona and elsewhere “proved to be expensive and ineffective at catching drug abusers.”

The governor is now required to call the General Assembly back to Raleigh by early September so lawmakers can attempt to override his vetoes. The other veto was concerning legislation that would have exempted employers from using the E-Verify system for temporary workers of less than nine months, compared to no more than three months that is currently law. Both measures passed the House and Senate in the legislative session’s final days last month by wide veto-proof margins.

A veto override requires yes votes from three-fifths of the members present in each chamber.

“It surprised me somewhat because I thought they were together on it,” said Bell of McCrory’s veto. “It makes me feel a little bit better about government. They have enough people in the party to override his veto, but I don’t think they’ll do it. If they do, to me it wouldn’t be a politically-sound thing to do. But as far as having the ability to do it, they can. And a lot of the things they’ve done because they could.”

McCrory issued a separate executive order that attempts to address a portion of the drug-testing bill that would have subjected welfare and food stamp applicants to expanded background criminal history checks. In Sampson, there were 4,561 Food and Nutrition Services cases (food stamps) involving nearly 12,000 individuals. The order directs the HHS to ensure that county social services offices conduct criminal checks for first-time or renewing applicants.

Instead of targeting the majority population with sweeping legislation, Bell said, the smaller population who may be in violation, if those cases are found, should be prosecuted.

“If you had a problem with a lot of people doing that and you know that’s the case, you should prosecute them,” said Bell. “But as far as making that a rule for everybody who applies, I think it’s a little overstepping. And you get a lot more innocent people than you do people in violation.”

Bradshaw said regulations are in place that do not just dismiss recipients, but allow DSS staff to work closely with them to help resolve the problem and get further assistance where it is truly needed.

“Our agency does have current program requirements in place that help us identify substance abuse needs, properly align services, and in some circumstances, impose disqualifications,” DSS program managers stated. “For example, within our Food and Nutrition Program, while we currently disqualify certain drug felons, internal efforts require cooperation on the part of the felon which can, in turn, cure the disqualifications. There are similar identification and intervention strategies in place within our Work First Program.”

Bell said if there is going to be legislation targeting government assistance fraud, it should be examined across the board.

“There’s probably more people in the upper-echelon of government doing fraudulent activities that are more expensive than what some of these people receiving a welfare check are doing,” said Bell. “A lot of people are getting government assistance that maybe need to get looked into,” said Bell, “rather than always looking at the poor people.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at