Senator Jane Nelson
P.O. Box 12068, State Capitol
Austin, Texas 78711
Tel. (512) 463-0112
Fax (512) 463-0923

OP-ED
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

November 19, 2012
Contact: Megan Hanson, (512) 463-0112

PUTTING WELFARE RECIPIENTS ON THE PATH TO SELF-SUFFICIENCY

In 1996 Congress replaced the traditional welfare entitlement with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program -- one of the few government programs that puts cash directly into the hands of its beneficiaries.

In exchange for these dollars, which are intended to help individuals as they take steps to re-enter the work force, participants sign a contract agreeing to certain things:

- They will actively seek employment;

- They won't use TANF funds on tobacco, alcohol, adult entertainment or other prohibited items; and

- They will abstain from illegal drugs, including cocaine, heroin and marijuana.

In return, the government provides direct cash assistance - between $93 and $514 per month as determined by family size and income.

This month I filed SB 11 to ensure that contract is honored and, more importantly, that TANF is truly putting individuals on a path to self-sufficiency.

SB 11 tightens exemptions from work requirements so that those who can work are seeking employment. It strengthens our efforts to prevent TANF funds from being spent on prohibited items. Because drug abuse is a barrier to employment and self-sufficiency, SB 11 also requires drug testing for applicants deemed at high risk for drug abuse through a screening tool that will be developed by the Health and Human Services Commission.

There are low or no-cost screening tools available. The drug test costs $35. While I fully expect SB 11 will provide a cost savings, the primary reason we need this legislation is to make sure these individuals can transition from welfare to work.

With 80 percent of employers requiring drug tests as a condition of employment -- and with national surveys showing about 17.5% of the unemployed population uses drugs, nearly double the figure for the population at large -- there is a compelling public interest in encouraging TANF recipients to remain drug free.

Individuals who fail the drug test can re-apply after one year or, if they undergo drug treatment, six months. Medicaid and other state programs offer substance abuse treatment to those who need it. It is important to note that SB 11 in no way impacts food stamps, unemployment or other public benefits.

Some have raised questions about the potential impact this legislation will have on children. During our hearings, I want to delve deeper into this issue, but I'm not convinced that putting cash directly into the hands of drug abusers provides any benefit to children.

Since May of last year, seven states have instituted drug testing in their TANF programs, using various approaches. These laws are relatively new, and their impact is still being studied. Opponents point to the Florida law, which is still in litigation. Unlike SB 11, which tests only new and renewing applicants deemed at high risk for drug abuse, the Florida law requires testing of all TANF beneficiaries.

TANF is not payment for actual work. It differs from other government programs in that it provides direct cash assistance to qualifying individuals who commit to a path toward self-reliance. Ensuring these individuals are drug free and therefore able to re-enter the work force is a goal we should all share.

SENATOR JANE NELSON represents District 12, including portions of Tarrant and Denton Counties. She is Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services.

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