Want to get angry? Brace yourself:
Legislation to cut welfare benefits of parents with children performing poorly in school has cleared committees of both the House and Senate after being revised to give the parents several ways to avoid the reductions. […]
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah. It calls for a 30 percent reduction in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to parents whose children are not making satisfactory progress in school.
Yes, you read that correctly. Tennessee is attempting to tie welfare benefits to student performance. If this measure does not immediately make you sick to your stomach, let’s take a look at why this idea is deeply flawed:
- Let’s begin with the basics – poor grades don’t magically mean you have lower nutritional needs, nor does it mean you are somehow less deserving of having basic nutritional needs met.
- Worried about student performance? Taking away the support a family needs to provide for basic nutrition will HURT THAT PERFORMANCE. See: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and the other thousands of pages of literature that is readily available on the subject.
- It is estimated that roughly 15% of students suffer from a learning disability. The proposed law exempts those students from the program, which is all fine and well, except only a fraction of students with learning disabilities are actually diagnosed and provided with individual education plans tailored to their disability. This means the law could easily penalize a student and their family for something they weren’t even aware of, and that’s not even close to fair. If anything, it would likely create an emotional toll that would exacerbate the problems. Speaking of which…
- Can we have a moment to think about the impact on the kids? The whole bill is designed to “promote parental involvement”, but in the meantime, if there’s a kid who’s struggling in school, and their family, in turn, is struggling to put food on the table, the sheer weight of guilt is going to be counterproductive in terms of performance, not to mention the emotional health of the child.
But even in a world where these impacts weren’t on the board, the proposed law ignores the realities playing out behind the struggling students. For some of the students on welfare, their parents are already involved in their kid’s life. They’re going to parent-teacher conferences. They’re scraping together the cash for tutoring. They’re making it work. They aren’t the ones we have to worry about, though. They’re already doing what’s asked by the bill. The remainder of the parent population in question, however, probably won’t be impacted in the way that the bill’s authors hope.
Let’s think about some of the types of parents that will be affected here:
- Working Parents – If a family is on welfare, they’re struggling to get by; that’s why they need the assistance to begin with, right? So if they’re working multiple jobs just to make ends meet, the structure of their daily routine may leave little room for the types of time-intensive solutions required with this bill. These parents are doing the best they can. Making it harder to care for their kids isn’t going to change that.
- Multi-Child Homes – Let’s say there is a full-time caretaker in the home. If the only child they’re caring for is the child that’s struggling, the remedial efforts proposed may be entirely feasible. But what if that caretaker is looking after three, four, five or more children? How do “parenting classes” figure into their schedule at all? And how does limiting funds required for caring for said gaggle of children improve their ability to care for any of them?
- “IDGAF” Parents – Let’s be real. Sometimes these kids are coming from pretty crappy homes. Forcing their parents to go to a parent-teacher conference probably isn’t going to change their parenting style or priorities, but it may cause them to lash out at their kids in a way that might not leave a bruise, but will definitely cause some emotional scarring. There’s an even higher possibility in this category that the parents decide to live with the cut in welfare benefits, but if you think they’re going to take on that pain themselves, you’re underestimating their poor life prioritization. If anything, for this group, the bill’s penalties are increasing the risk to the children tenfold.
In essence, the “solutions” intended to spur parental involvement are unlikely to do so. If they do spur engagement, it will likely be superficial, due to circumstance or attitude. It might be more effective to measure parental engagement on a case by case basis, but not only would that lead to wildly varied applications of the law, it also wouldn’t address the problems the bill has in terms of student impact.
Look, I get wanting to improve circumstances for students, and wanting to see more involved parents. But tying welfare benefits to student performance? It’s a lose-lose proposition. You really want to make a difference in these kids’ lives? Set up compulsory after-school tutoring programs for struggling students, provided for by the school, with safe transportation options available when it’s done. Require extracurricular activity participation by ALL students. Regularly evaluate students for learning disabilities so fewer fly under the radar.
Or how about more basic solutions? Let’s make sure that kids have the textbooks they need to study. Let’s invest in available technology to enhance the learning experience. Let’s train teachers to identify bullying and stop it so that our kids are learning in a safe environment. Let’s stop teaching to a damn test, because the ability to fill in bubbles isn’t worth anything if you can’t think for yourself.
I don’t know about you, but to me, those all sound like much better ideas than making a kid miss a meal because they’re struggling in class.