Tennessee Clergy Speak Out Against Bill To Cut Welfare For Children Who Get Poor Grades

As Tennessee prepares to consider two bills to reduce welfare assistance for needy families whose children are not doing well in school, a petition has popped up to fight the measure. The petition was started by Clergy for Justice, a Tennesse-based organization of clergy that has previously advocated for causes including immigration reform, health care, and anti-bullying laws. Within 36 hours, their petition garnered over 2,000 supporters from at least 145 cities and towns in Tennessee.

HB 0261 and SB 0132 would make family benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program conditional on a child’s educational performance. While Tennessee already ties welfare assistance to students’ attendance, this new proposal would essentially make poor children responsible for keeping their families afloat.

In an email to ThinkProgress, Clergy For Justice co-organizer Kathy Chambers highlighted one petition comment by Melissa Jennings, a former TANF recipient who pointed out that the bill penalizes children who are already being left behind by schools:

The public school system fails our kids time and time again, not reaching out to the children that need it, not being available to tutor, and leaving behind the children that may need just a little more time to catch on to something. The children’s grades are just as much a responsibility of the teachers and the school system — thus the government — as it is the parents and the children themselves. […]


I have been on assistance since I was laid off 3 years ago, and chose to go back to school. If not for that help, my children and I would have starved. I have not been through a drive through or eaten a restaurant in over 2 years. […] My kids don’t get to go to McDonald’s or Dairy Queen, but that assistance has provided me the only way I have to “treat” my kids, and cook them healthy meals.

Furthermore, the school is ALWAYS having parents bring in food for this or that, on sports teams there are snack schedules parents are assigned to, and for holidays each child is supposed to bring in certain food items, or for culture/history projects, they are required to cook certain dishes for the class. For over the half of the school year, my children could not participate in any of it, grades suffered for it, and the embarrassment for them was heartbreaking. This assistance has allowed me to allow them to “fit-in” and take part in what is asked of them.

Now I am graduating in 1 month, as a provider to the community, and will more than pay back my share of the benefits given to my family. It has been a needed and appreciated stepping stone for me, and not everyone abuses the system. I will gladly pay my share of taxes to help support those in need, because if my fellow community had not done the same for me, what would my kids have done?

Research shows that children from impoverished homes tend to struggle more in school than children from economically secure households. Social and economic instability during formative years can cause chronic stress and stunt basic skills other children take for granted. As one petition signatory, a former teacher, noted, “I have seen first hand what lack of food does to a child in an educational setting. When you are hungry, you cannot learn. It is just that simple.” Threatening to cut off a family’s already meager source of sustenance can only harm children’s educational prospects, not improve them.