While 14.6 million unemployed Americans await a decision from Congress that could extend unemployment benefits until November, a proposal by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) would add another step to claiming those benefits.

In June, Hatch introduced a controversial amendment to the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act of 2010 which would require persons seeking government assistance or unemployment benefits to pass a drug test prior to receiving those benefits.

In a statement, Hatch called the amendment “a critical step to combat dangerous drug addiction” and “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.”

At a time when African-Americans face a 15.4 percent unemployment rate according to the Department of Labor, Hatch’s amendment has not been met with open arms. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) called the measure punitive and said it was not clear who would pay for the testing. Other Republican senators have not weighed in on the matter, stating that they would need to review the language of the bill before commenting.

Questions have been raised about Hatch’s motives for introducing such a stark measure at a time when so many are in need. According to The Washington Times, the senator has ties to pharmaceutical companies and lobbying groups which made large donations in 2009 to the Utah Families Foundation, a charity founded by Hatch.

In his weekly address to the nation July 17, President Obama called for an end to stalling tactics and urged Congress to move forward with help for the unemployed, assailing Republicans for treating “unemployment insurance like welfare.”

“For many, it was the only way to make ends meet while searching for work” he said, “the only way to cover rent, utilities, even food.”

Republican leadership in Congress is trying to block “our recovery and obstruct our progress,” he said. He said that the congressional opposition targets the under-priviledged. “They’ve got no problem spending money on tax breaks for folks at the top who don’t need them and didn’t even ask for them; but they object to helping folks laid off in this recession who really do need help.  And every day this goes on, another 50,000 Americans lose that badly needed lifeline,” Obama said..

The bill is still under debate in the Senate.


Melissa Jones

Special to the AFRO