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Costly and Wrong: Background Checks for Social Services in North Carolina

Ilana Novick

In North Carolina you can buy a gun without a background check, but according to a bill recently passed by the state legislature, the same shouldn't be true for receiving food stamps and other forms of government assistance. While the bill's initial announcement caused alarm from various observers, including News Observer columnist Barry Saunders, the bill, House Bill 392 enjoyed broad bipartisan support on a 106-6 vote, according to Raleigh station WRAL.

The North Carolina House Health and Human Services Committee voted to make the checks mandatory in all of North Carolina's Department of Social Services (DSS) offices for people applying for benefits, or even trying to renew them. The law also requires the DSS to tell local law enforcement agencies if an applicant is a fugitive or wanted under an outstanding warrant.

As is, the bill does not include funding for performing said background checks. A lobbyist representing North Carolina DSS offices noted at the hearing for the bil: "Right now, the county (DSS offices) are just strapped. We can't afford another unfunded mandate." The WRAL report said that it would cost the state's computers $144,841 to provide the background checks, while the News Observer quoted one of the bill's main sponsors saying that the bill's costs to local governments is unclear. 

Usually arguments over requirements for applying for public assistance involve means testing, setting the barriers for how much money one needs to earn in order to qualify for benefits, but in an age when legislators like Paul Ryan are accusing applicants of abusing the public benefit system, the non-income related barriers to receiving are increasing, too. North Carolina may be the only state to have passed a law requiring background checks, but according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least seven states have passed legislation related to drug testing for public assistance. Another 29 have proposed them.

Of course, the idea of convicted murderers receiving support from the government may be hard to swallow, but at a time when various state governments are arguing over whether to expand Medicaid, and the sequester cuts are hurting various assistance programs, are felons receiving food stamps really the problem? Is fraud really so prevelant that we need to institute background checks? If anything, it's the people who need it the most that will be hurt. As a DSS staff member told the News Observer, the fallout from the law will affect “a very vulnerable” segment of society. “If someone loses benefits, there are probably children involved."

Representative Paul Luebcke also noted that the bill also assumes "poor people were automatically suspect while well-off people were considered above reproach." To prove his point, Luebcke submitted an amendment that asked legislators to change the way the state gives job development grants to companies expanding or relocating to North Carolina, asking that the CFO and CEO of companies up for a job development grant be subjected to a background checks. It was more symbolic than anything else, and not voted on, though Luebcke makes an important point about how governments choose when and to whom to give aid. 

It still remains to be seen whether the bill will go further than being passed by North Carolina's House. Let's hope it's not the start of a country-wide trend.