SAN JOSE’S TOP political leader supports the idea of drug testing people who receive public assistance — a controversial measure just approved by San Francisco voters and widely lambasted by progressives across the Bay Area.

But despite success from San Francisco, it is unlikely South Bay residents will see a similar policy any time soon. That’s because Santa Clara County’s most powerful elected official isn’t a fan.

Mayor Matt Mahan exclusively told San José Spotlight he supports the spirit of Measure F, an initiative introduced by fellow Democrat San Francisco Mayor London Breed and approved by 58 percent of voters this month. The policy requires single adults under the age of 65 who receive cash assistance to be screened if suspected of being on drugs.

If a recipient tests positive for drug use, they’re given an evaluation and referred to a treatment program. The recipient is required to participate in the program if it’s free to continue receiving benefits. If someone declined treatment they would no longer get cash and could be evicted from city housing.

“The basic notion that there needs to be personal responsibility when we are using our scarce public resources to support people is something that I support. There has to be accountability all around.”

Mayor Matt Mahan

Supporters say the measure forces accountability and addresses a drug epidemic that fuels safety concerns and overdoses on San Francisco’s streets. Opponents say the measure is punitive and hurts the region’s poorest residents by taking away the basic services and support systems that keep them off the streets.

“The basic notion that there needs to be personal responsibility when we are using our scarce public resources to support people is something that I support,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “There has to be accountability all around.”

Mahan said while he hasn’t delved into the specifics of the measure, he supports the general idea. He said the government is responsible for providing effective services, shelter, subsidized housing and other forms of support for its most vulnerable residents.

“At the same time, I also believe that for that to work in a functioning modern society, individuals have to also step up and take responsibility for taking advantage of the services that government is providing,” Mahan said.

Not like San Francisco

Unlike San Francisco, which is both a city and a county, San Jose cannot pass such a policy. Social services, including various cash assistance programs, are doled out and regulated by the county — and there is no indication county officials will follow San Francisco’s example.

Susan Ellenberg, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, agreed that incentivizing people to receive treatment is the most effective way to help those struggling with addiction, but putting prerequisites on cash assistance is the opposite of an incentive.

“Fundamentally, yes, we want to hold people accountable. But what we want to do in order to create an environment where accountability is a reasonable measure, is ensure that people have what they need to take care of themselves,” Ellenberg told San José Spotlight. “When we withdraw services that we know they are entitled to or in need of, we simply compound the traumas of their situations and don’t do anything truly to work to alleviate poverty.”

More than 25 percent of Santa Clara County residents receive some form of public assistance, according to a 2022 county report on public assistance programs. San Jose makes up one-third of those receiving benefits.

Ellenberg said it’s unlikely Santa Clara County would consider something similar to Measure F because the board has approved a myriad of programs that loosen regulations on cash assistance. The county has created several different universal basic income (UBI) programs that give people a set amount of cash with no requirements on how to spend it. There are five UBI programs that support formerly incarcerated individualshomeless students, young adults aging out of the foster system and struggling families.

“There’s been parochial fear that if we give unconditional cash to people that they will misuse it — they’ll spend it on drugs or blow it in one way or another. And that myth is being busted by evaluations on guaranteed income pilots across the country every day,” Ellenberg said. “When people make their own determinations with money, they (generally) use it to address the particular gaps in their own lives.”

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This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.