The Tennessee Senate will vote Thursday on a controversial bill to reduce temporary welfare assistance to needy families if their children are not making progress in school.
Its Republican sponsors, state Sen. Stacey Campfield and state Rep. Vance Dennis, argue that revoking Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF) benefits from these parents will force them to take an interest in their children’s schoolwork. But the bill has been widely criticized by social justice advocates and by clergy for placing a family’s financial burden squarely on children. ThinkProgress spoke to State Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-TN), who teaches children with behavioral and emotional disabilities in Knox County. Informed by 25 years of classroom experience, Johnson is convinced penalizing families for children’s performance can only worsen the problem the bill is supposed to address.
“Pretty much everyone in my class will be affected by this,” Johnson said.
The bill exempts children with diagnosed disabilities, ignoring the many disabled children who go for years without being diagnosed. Furthermore, Johnson explained, many severely disabled children do not have low enough IQs to qualify as mentally handicapped, but also cannot be diagnosed with a learning disability as there is no disparity between their capability and their performance. Johnson also worries that her students, many of whom have behavioral issues stemming from abuse, will be exposed to yet more abuse at home if they cannot get their grades up. “Teachers have told me, knowing families where there’s abuse in the home, they will not fail the students,” Johnson said.
Parents would have their TANF assistance restored if they attend parenting classes or get their kids tutoring, expensive and time-consuming conditions Johnson deems deeply unrealistic. “Because I deal with kids who have emotional disabilities, there’s a lot of mental illness in the homes as well. We’ve got mental illness, we’ve got parents working two minimum wage jobs, or single parents,” Johnson explained. “And [Republicans] act as if these things are so easy to do like giving tutoring or coming to teacher conferences.”
In the Health subcomittee hearing, state Rep. Tony Shipley (R-TN) insisted that teachers have “dangled all the carrots” in front of parents, but they needed a “stick” to force parents to be more involved and pay attention to their childrens’ performance. Johnson rejects the idea that punitive measures are more effective, pointing instead to community school programs that give busy parents opportunities to learn techniques to help their children in school:
I understand wanting to get parents involved. This is not going to get those parents involved. It’s going to create a negative relationship between school and parent, it’s going to create problems for the child. These punitive measures not effective in getting people to do what you want them to do. What we need to look at is community schools, where we open the school a couple nights a week. I’d be willing to teach parents a class one night a week on behavior contracting with their kids, things like that. That’s where we’re going to find solutions: working with the families rather than working against them, and pitting us as the enemy.
Furthermore, needy children’s performance in school is impacted by a number of factors outside their control. Social and financial instability, hunger, and lack of access to basic resources all create stress for children. Johnson pointed out that these disadvantaged children are hardly alone in subpar academic performance, yet lawmakers are not discussing reducing state benefits for middle and upper class families:
We’re punishing one group of people because we can. The house sponsor, Vance Dennis, gets farm subsidies. He’s not talking about trying to tie farm subsidies to children’s progress. Why are we working on people who get TANF? These are families that are struggling, they’re trying to get back on track, they have been on track. These are families that are working to do something different. A lot of them are single mothers.
Tennessee families are hardly living large on their benefits, as some Republican lawmakers seem to suspect. The maximum benefit is $185 a month and has been fixed since 1996.
Before the state Senate votes tomorrow morning, advocacy group Clergy for Justice will hold a protest featuring a choir of children who will walk with the bill’s sponsor on his way to vote.