Tennessee to poor students: Improve your grades, or else!

Updated
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, right, speaks to a joint session of the Legislature on Wednesday, March 27, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, right, speaks to a joint session of the Legislature on Wednesday, March 27, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn.
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Tennessee lawmakers are weighing a counter-intuitive of fostering student achievement: Threatening their families’ income.

Republicans in the state legislature have put forth a bill that would reduce welfare payments to families whose children “fail to maintain satisfactory progress in school.” The law would substantially reduce the amount of the money parents and legal guardians receive from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a program whose meager provisions already leave recipients “far below [the] poverty line,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

This is not the first time that conservatives have tried to discipline the poor by skimming the top off their social insurance. In West Virginia, a proposed senate bill would require welfare recipients to pass a drug test. A similar law in Texas would do the same to those collecting unemployment benefits.

If, as one of the bill’s proponents claimed in January, the goal is to “motivate these parents to see how important an education is,” then the discipline-and-punish approach is preposterous on its face. Trading welfare for grades is probably not going to improve student achievement, unless you think the perpetual threat of utter destitution is conducive to a positive learning environment.

Furthermore, it’s unclear what the Tennessee legislature plans to do in order to help those children who fail to meet their standards. Given that the link between poverty and poor academic performance is fairly well established, hurtling children into yet deeper poverty would seem like the wrong way to address failing grades.

The same principle applies to other disciplinary, welfare-slashing policies. If you want someone to develop good habits, the preponderance of research suggests that applying severe stress to other, unrelated areas of his life is exactly the wrong way to help him. That’s due to what social psychologists call “ego depletion”: The deleterious effect that constant pressure has on willpower over time.

“The idea was that an individual’s capacity for exerting willpower was finite—that exerting willpower in one area makes us less able to exert it in other areas,” wrote the New America Foundation’s Jamie Holmes in 2011. And as he goes on to point out, that idea has significant implications for how we understand class and inequality.

Being poor is profoundly stressful. Holmes quotes psychologist Eldar Shafire saying of the poor that, with such limited resources, “almost everything they do requires tradeoff thinking.” Simply existing without much money requires substantially more willpower than living with disposable income. And that means there’s less willpower left over to expend on ancillary projects not related to immediate survival: Projects such as getting good grades or passing a drug test.

So applying greater stress—as lawmakers plan to do in Tennessee, West Virginia and Texas—could just mean a greater drain on willpower. If you want kids to apply discipline to their academic careers, part of that is making sure they have discipline to spend. The most effective way is arguably to remove or ameliorate the stressor of poverty—and the best way of doing that is by making people less poor, through direct cash transfers and so on. The proposal being weighed by the Tennessee legislature would do the exact opposite.

Tennessee to poor students: Improve your grades, or else!

Updated