Make the Grade or Starve: Lawmaker Ties Welfare Benefits to School Performance

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  • Insisting his only motivation is ridding the world of its “generational cycle of poverty,” a Tennessee lawmaker is nonetheless proposing legislation that could leave more children hungry and even more destitute in the here and now.

    Republican State Senator Stacey Campfield is seeking to tie state welfare benefits to student performance by mandating that state officials slash monthly benefits made to parents whose children fail to show “satisfactory academic progress” by as much as 30 percent.

    Known as State Bill 132, the proposal classifies such bottom-line indicators as annually advancing grade levels and posting at least a score of proficiency on all required state exams in the areas of math, reading and language arts. Among critics its sink-or-swim approach is seen as even being harsher than current state law which already stipulates parents of children receiving benefits through the Temporary Assistance Needy Families (TANF) program forfeit up to 20 percent of their monthly allotment if their child is deemed truant or does not regularly attend school.

    “We need to do something to motivate these parents to see how important an education is, and the only tool we have left is this cash payment,” argued Campfield. “We have done very little to hold parents accountable for their child’s performance. It’s unacceptable to have this generational cycle of poverty continue.”

    But how can one truly expect or even hope to elevate the poor by making them even needier? Commission on Children and Youth Services Executive Director Linda O’Neal openly wanders. Though the agency has yet to take a formal stance on the proposed legislation and doesn’t plan to prior to a committee board meeting slated for later this month, she seemed to more than express her disdain within minutes of Campfield going public with his proposal.

    “The maximum benefit for a mother with two children is $185 a month,” she said. “That’s already low. If you take $60-plus away, you’re just further limiting people who already have extremely few resources… It’s just piling on.”

    Still, Campfield, who has no children of his own, remains unmoved. “For a long time parents have gotten away with doing absolutely nothing to help their children,” he said. “That’s child abuse to me.” To say, ‘Listen, if your kid shows up at school at 11 o’clock in your pajamas, that kid is not ready for school.’ Families have to take a responsibility for having the kids prepared to go to school.”

    Lost in the translation of Campfield’s rather cold-blooded resolve seemingly are at least some of the facts. At 87.2 percent, currently Tennessee ranks well ahead of the national high school graduation rate of 78.2 percent, according to state Department of Education officials.

    Yet, the state presently has more than 155,000 residents on its welfare rolls, trailing only far larger metropolises such as New York and Los Angeles in terms of per-capita recipients and, critics charge, offering a far clearer illustration of what Campfield’s truer motivation just might stem from.

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