Before county assistance approval felons must pass test
By Paula Quam / DL Online
It can be a hotly debated topic — the issue of giving welfare benefits to people who are also known to be using drugs.
Now, Becker County is among the other Minnesota counties implementing a new law which requires all convicted drug felons to pass drug tests before being approved for county assistance programs.
The Minnesota law is a compromise between those who say that all welfare recipients should be drug tested before receiving benefits, and others who fear civil liberties are being sacrificed and that past wrongdoing shouldn’t prevent someone from receiving critical aid.
Since the law was implemented last month, Becker County has tracked down 17 people who matched up as both drug felons and people receiving county assistance.
Those 17 people were sent notices of the new requirements, and now have a window of time to appeal before any drug testing in this county begins.
Once it does, the identified persons from the list will be randomly drug tested every six months to a year, and if they pass, they continue to receive their benefits.
If not, (or if they don’t show up) the brakes on those assistance dollars come to a screeching halt.
It could mean a partial reduction or complete termination of benefits, depending on the assistance program and the family circumstance.
The first failed test will result in a five-year ban on assistance programs. Clients are given the opportunity to clear their sanction by completing and passing a second urinalysis within a month’s time. The process is repeated before each review after that point.
A second fail will mean a permanent disqualification of these assistance programs — unless they prove themselves.
The identified drug felon may continue to receive benefits if he or she has participated in a drug-treatment program, completed a drug-treatment program or has been assessed by the county as not needing a drug treatment program.
But not receiving benefits may be the less-serious ramification of failing a drug test, as often times convicted drug felons have probation stipulations.
“Human services agencies will be working with the department of corrections on cross reporting,” said Becker County Human Services Director Nancy Nelson. “Any consequences in regards to violation of probation or parole will be up to the corrections officer.”
But Nelson says there is a big misconception that a lot of assistance recipients are involved in drugs, and those 17 people are a very small fraction of the 4,002 who, as of Oct. 1, are actually receiving benefits in Becker County.
Every month, millions of dollars are handed out to struggling Minnesotans in the forms of multiple assistance programs. General assistance dollars range from as low as $94 to as high as $203 per month, per adult.
Families can qualify for more than one assistance program. For example, a family of five can get roughly $1,100 per month if they qualify for both the Minnesota Family Investment Program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Nelson says while the county is responsible for determining who meets the criteria to receive benefits, the money actually comes from the state and federal government.
And while inevitably drug testing may translate into savings at those levels, Nelson says counties will bear the brunt of the new law.
“This program will be an additional cost for the counties, since the counties are responsible for administering the drug screens and ensuring that individuals are eligible,” she said. “The cost to the counties will be the cost of the drug screens and the additional staff time to implement.”
Just as it is far too early to determine how much money this new law will save the state and federal government, it’s also too early to tell how much it will cost Becker County.