People seeking unemployment benefits or welfare would have to first pass a drug test under a proposal Sen. Orrin Hatch will try to add to legislation extending the social safety net during this time of economic turmoil.
Hatch, R-Utah, said his idea would help battle drug addiction and could reduce the nation's debt. He will try to get the Senate to include his amendment to a $140 billion bill extending tax breaks and social programs this week.
"This amendment is a way to help people get off of drugs to become productive and healthy members of society, while ensuring that valuable taxpayer dollars aren't wasted," he said after announcing his amendment. "Too many Americans are locked into a life of a dangerous dependency not only on drugs, but the federal assistance that serves to enable their addiction."
But a leading low-income advocate in Utah called the idea "outrageous" and "immoral."
"If people who need all kinds of help can't get certain kinds of help, that is just not right," said Linda Hilton of the Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City. She couldn't fathom the idea of denying assistance to a person with an alcohol dependency, and she worries it could punish entire families for the addiction of a parent.
State Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, introduced similar legislation during Utah's legislative session but ultimately abandoned the bill because the programs are governed federally.
Wimmer applauds Hatch for pushing the issue. He said what's immoral isn't Hatch's amendment, but the actions of a small number of people surviving through public assistance.
"It is simply immoral for them to use taxpayer dollars to fund their addiction," he said. "Clearly, people who have a drug addiction need help, but they need to step up to get the help."
Wimmer said the problem used to be greater when welfare benefits were distributed as a cash-like system, instead of the debit card now in use. But he argues the problem hasn't disappeared entirely and taxpayers are still subsidizing illegal habits.
Hatch's office compared the proposed requirement to the random drug testing conducted by hundreds of private employers. The senator's amendment would bar people from federal assistance but allow states to enroll them in either a state or federal drug treatment program, saying any money saved would go toward the deficit.
Hilton said it's "fair to say" a small portion of people receiving public assistance have a substance abuse problem.
"But that is not the majority of people we see at Crossroads," she said.
Hilton argues that if Congress adopts Hatch's amendment it would cost the government more money than it would save, because the government would be obligated to increase the number of drug and alcohol treatment slots available.