A ‘tricky balance’: Serving the needy and keeping them from gaming the system

The idea of requiring drug testing of those receiving public assistance, as proposed in a bill in the Indiana House, is generating mixed response in Elkhart County.
Posted on Feb. 16, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.

ELKHART — Mixed among the many who seek public assistance, there are undoubtedly some gaming the system for handouts, say representatives from social service agencies in Elkhart County.

There may even be drug addicts among the bunch; this is the concern underlying a state proposal that would potentially require drug testing of those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

Still, it’s a stretch, some say, to think such manipulators are representative of everyone seeking help. And it’s misguided to dismiss those seeking public help, out of hand, as freeloaders, working the system.

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“I don’t see people trying to take advantage of the system,” said Vonda Horst, director of financial services at Church Community Services, an Elkhart-based food pantry. “I guess I don’t see drug addicts trying to get TANF.”

That said, it can be a “tricky balance” respecting the liberties of those getting benefits and holding them accountable for their actions, said Ross Swihart. He’s executive director of Faith Mission in Elkhart, a soup kitchen and shelter for homeless and low-income people.

To live in Faith Mission facilities, clients have to agree to random drug testing, and Swihart said violators of the agencies drug policies are regularly discovered. “We encounter it on a consistent basis,” he said.


House Bill 1483 would oblige recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Familes benefits to complete a written questionnaire and, depending on the results, submit to drug testing. TANF is a program overseen here by the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration that provides cash assistance to help low-income families with children.

The bill’s author, Indiana Rep. Jud McMillen, R-Brookeville, told the Associated Press that the aim is to identify those with drug problems so they can get help, improving the environment for the children in their homes. The proposal recently received a favorable vote by the House Committee on Family, Children and Human Affairs and, according to the Indiana General Assembly website, now goes to the House Committee on Ways and Means for further consideration.

Whatever the intent, it’s a touchy topic and sparks strong opinions.

Seated in the dining room at The Window, a soup kitchen and food pantry in Goshen, several taking advantage of the hot lunch offered by the agency expressed resounding support for H.B. 1483.

“I think it’s fair,” said Ruth LeBeau, a Goshen woman who relies on disability benefits, eating with her son and several others. “If you have nothing to hide and you’re getting assistance, why would you say, ‘No, I don’t want to (be tested)’? If you’ve got something to hide, then you might say no.”

Her lunchmate, Miriam Wengerd of Goshen, agreed.

“They have to understand or go without (the assistance),” said Wengerd, a retiree living on a fixed income. “I don’t feel sorry for them.”

Ed Swartley, executive director of The Window, knows there are drug users and abusers among the clientele. But the vast majority at The Window, perhaps 90 percent or more, are “pretty clean,” and to suggest the recipients of assistance there, by and large, are on drugs is unfair.

More than anything, The Window clients are the working poor, the underemployed, people who work, but still don’t earn enough money to make ends meet.

“The money they are getting just isn’t cutting it,” Swartley said. “I know people who are working two or three jobs.”


Horst, back at Church Community Services, has questions about H.B. 1483. How would TANF recipients who test positive for drug use find funds to cover treatment? The bill states that those who test positive may continue to receive TANF benefits if they get into treatment programs.

She also worries about the negative stereotypes about aid recipients that seem to come to the fore in the debate over proposals like H.B. 1483.

“I think it’s just another stereotype, that poor people are no-good, lazy drug addicts,” she said. “I get very angry when I hear the stereotypes like that.”

Like Swartley, the people Horst deals with seem, by and large, to be genuinely in need, perhaps lacking the skills and training to thrive in today’s workplace. Applying for public benefits like TANF can be such a chore and require jumping through so many bureaucratic hoops that she hardly sees that route as an easy escape.

At the same time, she can’t fathom implementing drug-testing requirements at Church Community Services, even if it were possible. Per federal guidelines, the agency can’t impose barriers to aid like drug testing.

“We’re a faith-based organization and I think if we see a need, we fill that need,” she said. “We’re here to serve.”


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