OPED: Why Not Train Instead of Test?

This week, the Austin American-Statesman ran an oped I wrote about the flawed legislation filed that would require welfare and unemployment benefits applicants to be drug tested.
Instead of going down this costly and unnecessary route, we should be focusing on creating tools to allow Texas families to lift themselves out of poverty and get well-paying jobs.
Here is the full-length piece that ran yesterday in the Statesman:
“Here 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 short-term 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 United States 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 to create 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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