Tennessee lawmaker: tie welfare benefits to child’s school performance

How do you fight the war on poverty? Require those receiving government assistance to make sure their children are excelling in school, according to one Tennessee state senator.

State Sen. Stacey Campfield has proposed legislation that would cut welfare benefits to parents whose children fail to make “satisfactory academic progress” in school, a move he says should inspire parents to take a more active role in helping students learn.

While the Knoxville Republican says SB132 is a step toward “breaking the cycle of poverty,” Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, says it could make life more difficult for parents and children who are already struggling.

Campfield said in an interview that the best way to “break the cycle of poverty” is through education and a child’s success in schooling rests on a “three-legged stool” – teachers, schools and parents.

He said Tennessee has already embarked on education reforms designed to improve the quality of teachers and the quality of schools. There should also be a focus on the “third leg,” parents, he said.

“We’ve set the tone (through legislation) to push and improve teachers and schools,” Campfield said. “Now is the time to push those parents. This bill is giving them motivation to do more to help their children learn in school.”

“If the family doesn’t care if the child goes to school or does well in school, the odds of that child getting out of poverty are pretty low,” the senator said.

Hm…how ambitious. I should note that the bill applies to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

The state’s current law says parents or guardians of children who are receiving benefits can lose 20 percent of those benefits if a child does not attend school. Campfield’s bill adds a new requirement that the child make “satisfactory academic progress” as well and raises the penalty to 30 percent of benefits.

More from the article linked above:

The bill defines “satisfactory academic progress” as advancing from one grade to the next and “receiving a score of proficient or advanced on required state examinations in the subject areas of mathematics and reading/language arts.” Those who fail to meet “competency” standards on end-of-course exams could also be deemed fall short of “satisfactory academic progress.” Special education students “who are not academically talented or gifted” would be exempted from the requirements.

So, in order to get poor parents to care about their children’s education, you’re going to make it harder for them to have enough money to feed them? Which, in turn, will make it harder for children to focus on their school work as it will increase the likelihood that they would be coming to school hungry.

As it stands, the article notes a woman with two children receives only $180 per month in TANF benefits. If something beyond the control of her and her children were to happen that could impact the child’s ability to perform well in school, this hypothetical family could be penalized.

What if the child has an undiagnosed mental disability that affects their performance in school? What if the child is stuck with a teacher with poor quality? What if the child comes from a disruptive home and is regularly subjected to sexual, physical and mental abuse? What if their parents are busy working two or three jobs just to get by?

What if the parent has a physical disability that makes it impossible for them to sit down and help children with their homework? What if the parent has a physical disability that would inhibit their ability to attend parent-teacher conferences to discuss their child’s performance in the classroom?

There are so many variables that can impact whether a student is able to perform at “satisfactory” academic levels in the classroom that this one size fits all approach simply won’t address the underlying issue. Furthermore, this Campfield’s bill is another example of an orchestrated effort by mostly GOP politicians to penalize the poor and scapegoat the poor as parasites who slowly suck the livelihood out of government benefits.


This sort of ableist thinking doesn’t take into account that children could have disabilities–whether physical or mental–that make it harder for them to excel in the classroom.

These children with disabilities could be stuck in a school that doesn’t have the qualified and professional staff needed to ensure that these students with disabilities are receiving federally mandated quality education. Sure, the law exempts special education students “who are not academically talented or gifted,” but there are many students who could be classified as special education, but routinely slip through the cracks.

It also doesn’t take into account whether parents could have disabilities that would limit their ability to be involved in their children’s lives. A parent could be strictly homebound, and not able to attend school meetings. A parent could suffer from a mental illness that could possibly make for an unstable home life for their own children (if that parent hasn’t been diagnosed and isn’t receiving proper medical care), thus making it harder for children to perform adequately in school.

Also, the bill–which could be a reflection of Campfield’s opinions of the poor–also assumes that all parents receiving TANF benefits are inherently divorced from the lives of their children; that they are too irresponsible to make sure their children are healthy, happy and succeeding in school.

Campfield’s bill also reinforces stereotypes that those who receive government assistances are ambivalent about pushing their children to make good grades. It assumes that poor people receiving government benefits are truly content with their lot, recklessly bringing children they can’t afford into the world and not pushing their children to excel in the classroom. It assumes that most people receiving government assistance are entitled drug users who are out to abuse the system and take what they believe is rightfully belongs to them.

What do you think about Campfield’s legislation?