Fo­cus on ca­reer lad­ders, not screen­ing for drugs

The pri­vate sec­tor ap­pears per­fectly ca­pa­ble of per­form­ing drug screen­ing, mak­ing a state-run sys­tem waste­ful.

Austin American-Statesman - - VIEWPOINTS - Bay­lor is se­nior pol­icy an­a­lyst at the Cen­ter for Pub­lic Pol­icy Pri­or­i­ties, an Austin-based think tank.


we go again. In Novem­ber, we heard of new at­tempts by the Texas Leg­is­la­ture to man­date drug screen­ing for Tex­ans seek­ing tem­po­rary cash as­sis­tance and un­em­ploy­ment com­pen­sa­tion. While th­ese “re­heat and serve” bills are ex­pen­sive and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, they are mainly a dis­trac­tion from the sig­nif­i­cant ob­sta­cles fac­ing Texas fam­i­lies that want a fight­ing chance to move up the eco­nomic lad­der.

Th­ese no-im­pact pro­pos­als — soundly re­jected by the past two Leg­is­la­tures — serve only as a sideshow dis­trac­tion from the main event: en­sur­ing that the Texas work­force is pre­pared for a chang­ing econ­omy and pro­mot­ing fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity for fam­i­lies across the state.

When we turn to that stage, we find some dis­turb­ing in­di­ca­tors for the Texas econ­omy and work­force. And, we see clearly that Texas has much more of a skills prob­lem than a drug prob­lem.

Let’s look at un­em­ploy­ment in­surance first. In re­cent years, the num­ber of Tex­ans re­ceiv­ing un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits did go up, but that’s be­cause the in­surance was do­ing ex­actly what it’s sup­posed to do: pro­vide short­term ben­e­fits to long-term work­ers who lost their jobs due to no fault of their own in the re­ces­sion. Even then, only a frac­tion (1 in 4) of job­less Tex­ans ac­tu­ally re­ceives un­em­ploy­ment com­pen­sa­tion, also one of the low­est rates na­tion­ally.

As for cash as­sis­tance, de­spite the rhetoric, the num­ber of Texas fam­i­lies re­ceiv­ing that form of aid has plum­meted. In a rapidly grow­ing state that re­mains one of the na­tion’s poor­est, the num­ber of adults on cash as­sis­tance has dropped more than 90 per­cent since 1996. As of Oc­to­ber, Tem­po­rary As­sis­tance for Needy Fam­i­lies en­rolled about 15,000 adults — less than 1 per­cent of all Texas adults in poverty — who re­ceive about $70 per month.

Cre­at­ing new re­stric­tions on el­i­gi­bil­ity would only cost the state ad­di­tional gen­eral rev­enue and di­vert re­sources away from proven tools and strate­gies that gen­er­ate pos­i­tive out­comes for fam­ily as­sis­tance and un­em­ploy­ment in­surance claimants.

Such ef­forts would not get a big bang for the buck, ei­ther. To com­ply with fed­eral rules, the Texas Leg­is­la­ture could not in­sti­tute a blan­ket drug screen­ing for all un­em­ployed ap­pli­cants, but only un­der two spe­cific cir­cum­stances: when the claimant was ter­mi­nated from their most re­cent job due to un­law­ful use of a con­trolled sub­stance or if the claimant’s only suit­able work typ­i­cally re­quires drug screen­ing.

In­stead, Texas should lever­age both pro­grams to pro­mote self-suf­fi­ciency and fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity. Ed­u­ca­tion and skills at­tain­ment are cor­ner­stones to achieve th­ese goals; how­ever, about 1 in 5 adult Tex­ans lacks a high school di­ploma or equiv­a­lent, leav­ing Texas ranked 50th in the U.S. for adult ba­sic ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment. Also, we have the third-high­est share in the U.S. of hourly paid work­ers earn­ing min­i­mum wage or less. If th­ese trends con­tinue, our fu­ture pros­per­ity will be lim­ited by our low in­vest­ment and at­ten­tion to build­ing hu­man cap­i­tal and a strong work­force.

We do have choices. To pro­mote eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity for more Tex­ans, we must keep our fo­cus on build­ing ca­reer lad­ders and path­ways for both work­ing adults and as­pir­ing stu­dents.

Texas’ Un­em­ploy­ment In­surance sys­tem sim­ply does not need an­other layer be­tween work­ers and the pri­vate sec­tor through a state-run drug test­ing pro­gram. Texas al­ready em­ploys strong safe­guards to re­strict el­i­gi­bil­ity for work­ers whose job loss is re­lated to drug use. Un­der cur­rent law, an ap­pli­cant for un­em­ploy­ment in­surance is al­ready in­el­i­gi­ble for ben­e­fits if their sep­a­ra­tion from work was due to mis­con­duct.

In the end, this test­ing ef­fort would prove more trou­ble than it’s worth. If In­di­ana’s re­cent drug-test­ing pol­icy ex­per­i­ment proves to be any guide, Texas may be spend­ing a dol­lar in one area to save a dime in an­other.

Fi­nally, the pri­vate sec­tor ap­pears per­fectly ca­pa­ble of per­form­ing drug screen­ing for their in­dus­tries, mak­ing a state-run sys­tem re­dun­dant and waste­ful.

En­sur­ing that all ba­sic skills train­ing is con­nected with tech­ni­cal and vocational skills train­ing will pro­mote more op­por­tu­nity and make a bet­ter Texas through good pol­icy. Th­ese costly and worth­less pro­pos­als do noth­ing to move Texas to­ward this thresh­old.

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