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In one form or another in recent years, the West Virginia Legislature has attempted to pass bills requiring drug testing for those receiving public assistance. In some instances, it’s succeeded.

The general idea is for politicians to show they’re being tough on “welfare,” and not letting freeloaders abuse the system, a line of reasoning mired in years of oversimplification and stigma attached to those who need help feeding their families.

The situation is actually much more nuanced, and the same people who decry bloated government waste are engaging in it when they pursue this type of legislation.

First off, there are many assistance programs that, out of convenience or misunderstanding, get lumped under the single name of “welfare.” There are, in fact, a multitude of public assistance programs, some run by the state, some by the federal government. All of these programs have various requirements to qualify.

The vast majority on some form of public assistance use the programs for only a short time, as they look for employment or better jobs. Many people who never would have considered public assistance needed it during the economic crash in 2008. Certainly, different aspects of financial assistance also have been beneficial to those who have lost jobs or wages during the coronavirus pandemic.

And yet, some believe these people must be harassed and punished, because some abuse the system.

For instance, the Legislature is considering a bill that would require those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to submit to drug testing. This is the program that is closest to what would be called welfare. It’s a federal program that goes by the name West Virginia Works in the Mountain State.

Senate Bill 387, which would require a drug screen if a caseworker suspects drug use, passed the upper chamber Wednesday and is heading to the House of Delegates. Under the bill, any TANF recipient who tests positive must complete a “substance abuse treatment and counseling program and a job skills program.” Failure to do so results in benefits being stripped. Refusing to be tested also will result in a loss of benefits.

Trying to shame people for using such a program is cruel. It’s also a waste of taxpayer money and defeats the purpose of saving money by rooting out abuse of the system.

For instance, the TANF program provides a mere $612 a month for a family of four, and they can be on the program for only five years over their lifetime. That’s not on for five years, off for one, then on for another five. It’s five years, total. That’s it.

Out of 1.7 million people in West Virginia, fewer than 6,000 households received TANF benefits in February, according to a state Department of Health and Human Resources report. And that number is actually down by 85 households from this time last year. So, very few people are on the program, and its use went down during the pandemic.

Oh, by the way, who pays for the drug tests under this bill? The DHHR. How is the DHHR funded? Through West Virginians’ tax dollars. So, the West Virginia Senate expects West Virginians to foot the bill for drug testing assistance recipients at the same time it is lambasting government waste and attempting to repeal the state income tax?

For this legislative session, and so many others in recent memory, sadly, that tracks.

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