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News State / Region Work First applicants may soon be required to pass a drug screen

Applicants for the federal assistance program known as Work First may soon have to pass a drug screen before being eligible for benefits under Senate Bill 594, which was introduced by Senator Jim Davis (R-50). The bill, which passed the Senate Monday night in a 35-15 vote, is now heading to the House of Representatives for consideration.

The bill requires those seeking benefits and those currently enrolled in the program to pay for the drug tests upfront. If the tests are negative, applicants would be reimbursed for the tests through an increase in Work First payments. For applicants who test positive for controlled substances, they would be ineligible for benefits for a minimum of one year.

House of Representative member Joe Sam Queen (D-119) believes the program's cost would out-weigh any possible benefits. “This seems like a very expensive solution in search of a problem,” said Queen. “Since statistically 98 percent of people tested pass the drug test, I think we need to take more time and figure out a solution that does not cost our counties a significant amount of money during these tough economic times.”

Work First, North Carolina's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, is based on the idea that parents have a responsibility to support themselves and their children. The Work First program allows parents to receive short-term training and other services to help them become self-sufficient and obtain employment. The program, which allows most families to receive assistance for two years, requires that parents take responsibility for themselves and their families.

A branch of the North Carolina Division of Social Services, Work First emphasizes three strategies:

1) Diversion. Keeping families off welfare by helping them cope with unexpected emergencies or setbacks. Under Work First, qualifying families can get a one-time payment equivalent to up to three months worth of cash Work First benefits, based on a needs assessment by the county worker, Medicaid, child care and Food and Nutrition Services, if eligible, and other supportive services.

2) Work. Shortening the length of time that families are on Work First Family Assistance by making work mandatory and by limiting how long a family can receive cash assistance. To receive Work First Family Assistance benefits, parents must register with the First Stop Employment Assistance Program, sign a Mutual Responsibility Agreement (MRA) and, once they move into the work components of the program, they can continue to receive benefits for up to 24 months. In most cases, families who have reached the 24-month limit cannot receive Work First Family Assistance for three years.

3) Retention. Helping families to stay off public assistance by encouraging them to save and by helping to make sure they really are better off working than on welfare. Work First increased limits on savings and vehicles, and the state legislature raised income eligibility limits for subsidized child care to ease the burden on low-income, working families. To help families stay employed, counties are also providing services, such as transportation, to families whose income is at or below 200 percent of poverty.

“Ultimately, North Carolina 's goal is to help all families move to self-sufficiency. Most will make it all the way; some, because of hardship or disability, will have a harder time,” reads the Work First website. “North Carolina's success thus far at helping families move from cash assistance to work has led to a broadened focus for the Work First Program. No longer is the focus just on helping those families who receive cash assistance move off the rolls. While we remain committed to continuing our assistance to those families, we have added the flexibility and program structure for counties to provide former Work First families with job retention and child and family enrichment services designed to help ensure families' long-term success. Further, since child support is critical to ensuring families' success, we have expanded the Work First Program to allow counties to provide work-related services to non-custodial parents of Work First children.

“Further, ensuring the safety and well-being of children is of utmost concern. Toward that end, North Carolina has taken advantage of the opportunity offered by the TANF Block Grant to enhance our efforts in this area.”

The Work First initiative first began by Executive Order of Gov. Jim Hunt in July 1995. The following year, waivers were granted by the federal government to allow the state to institute work requirements and time limits. In August 1997, October 1998, and again in July 1999, the North Carolina General Assembly passed, and Gov. Hunt signed into law, modifications to the welfare reform legislation. One provision in this legislation gives identified local governments significant control over their Work First program.

The legislation identifies counties as Standard or Electing. Standard counties operate the State's Work First Program while Electing counties have additional flexibility in program design. Macon County is considered an Electing county.

The bill reads, “For an applicant or current recipient who tests negative for controlled substances, the Department shall increase the amount of the initial Work First Program assistance by the amount paid by the applicant or recipient for the drug testing. An applicant or recipient who tests positive for controlled substances as a result of a drug test required under this section is ineligible to receive Work First Program assistance for one year from the date of the positive drug test except as provided in subsection (b1) of this section. The individual may reapply after one year. However, if the individual has any subsequent positive drug tests, the individual shall be ineligible for benefits for three years from the date of the subsequent positive drug test unless the individual reapplies pursuant to subsection (b1) of this section.”

If applicants are deemed ineligible for the program based on a drug screen result, before being allowed to reapply, the individual will be required to complete drug treatment in a substance abuse program, which they would be required to pay for out of pocket. After completing treatment applicants would once again be drug tested, and if they pass, would then be eligible to receive benefits.

Under Senate Bill 594, applicants are only allowed to reapply for benefits one time, after that, they will no longer be eligible for the Work First program.

According to the Work First website, effective October 1, 2009, the Work First program implemented a new process for issuing Work First cash assistance. This process is called Work First Benefits (WFB). All adults who are included in the assistance payment must have a Mutual Responsibility Plan of Action agreement that requires the individuals to work or participate in work-related activities.

These adults must complete all of the requirements on their agreement each month before receiving Work First cash assistance, unless there is a good cause.

Work First Benefits mirror the working world, where individuals “work first” and receive payment for employment afterwards. Work First Benefits was piloted in six counties that were successful in improving North Carolina’s Work First participation rate. Work First participation rates are required by federal standards and can affect funding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

The bill stands to affect a substantial number of North Carolinians. According to the most recent reports, North Carolina had 40,668 active individuals in Work First cases, with 3,320 active applications on file for the same month.

If approved by the House, Senate Bill 594 would become effective in the state no later than July 1, 2014. The House of Representatives are expected to take up the bill soon.

Editor’s note: Senator Jim Davis could not be reached for comment.


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