{{show_title_date || "Dear Tenn. lawmakers, encourage education policy that supports, not shames, 4/6/13, 10:41 AM ET"}}

Tying welfare benefits to school grades teaches the wrong lesson

Updated

Lawmakers in Tennessee are pushing a bill that would take money away from the state’s poorest families if their children fail to make the grade in school.

The bill targets recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. If students performs poorly–and if their parents or caretakers fail to meet one of several requirements–then TANF payments for that family will be reduced by up to 30%. One of the lawmakers behind the bill told us his aim is to help children use education to break the cycle of poverty.

Sounds nice in theory. But that’s not what this law does in practice. In my letter this week, I’d like to let the sponsors of this bill know what it’s really about.

Dear Tennessee state Sen. Stacey Campfield and state Rep. Vance Dennis,

It’s me, Melissa.

You’ve said your bill isn’t really placing a family burden on the shoulders of children, but instead is an incentive to hold parents accountable.

You’ve added amendments to the bill that would exempt parents who either attend parent teacher conferences, an 8-hour parenting class, arrange tutoring, or enroll their child in summer school. Certainly, every child deserves to have a parent who is an involved participant in his or her education.

But your bill is only concerned with struggling kids whose parents are poor. In fact, Sen. Campfield, you went so far as to tell us that parents who allow their kids to fail in school are guilty of child abuse. Strong words, senator.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder. If your passion for parental involvement is as profound as your choice of words, why wouldn’t you pursue legislation that would penalize all parents of children with a poor academic record?

Here I’ll help–how about a $1,500 tax penalty for middle and upper income people who shirk their parental responsibilities? The fact is this bill is just the latest in a well-worn policy practice of subjecting the choices of poor parents–and in particular, poor single mothers–to scrutiny and shame.

As you well know, TANF eligibility already requires children to attend school, and parental participation in school conferences.

At the same time, those parents receiving cash assistance also must work or participate in work-related activities. All of this while stretching the $2,000 in maximum assets required to qualify for TANF.

So prodding poor parents to get even more involved is really just a callous disregard for the fact that parental involvement–while ideal–is a luxury that not all families can afford.

Poor parents are more likely than their wealthier counterparts to work multiple jobs, lack paid leave, and be unable to afford child care and transportation. And far from breaking the cycle of poverty, your legislation would only sink families even further below the line.

A single mother with two children receives $185 dollars a month in TANF cash payments. That’s roughly $46 dollars a week, less than $7 a day. Your 30% reduction would cut that payment to just under $130 a month.

Your legislation also ignores the very real educational impediments for students coming from impoverished households–like food and housing insecurity or financial and health care instability. And the truth is that poor people don’t hold the monopoly on bad parenting. Nor is a poor child who struggles in school an indicator that he or she has a parent who simply doesn’t care. For impoverished children, even the most exceptional of parents may not be enough to push them through the significant structural barriers imposed by a life in poverty. Bad parenting is not a barrier to success for the rich. Neither should it be an impediment for children of the poor.

And gentlemen–it’s your job as elected officials to encourage their achievement with policy that supports instead of shames.

Sincerely,

Melissa

Tying welfare benefits to school grades teaches the wrong lesson

Updated