Bad Grades, Less TANF Aid?

If there is a hell, I hope there is a special section for poor-bashing politicians. I’d like to make a booking, and after you hear about what some Tennessee lawmakers are up to, you’ll probably want to chip in. Maybe we can get a collection going and send them off with some sweaters to sweat and suffer in.

Last week, Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, introduced legislation that would tie welfare benefits of parents with children to their kids’ school performance. Under the law, there would a 30 percent reduction in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (AKA welfare) benefits to parents whose children are not making satisfactory progress in school. Dennis reportedly told the House Health Subcommittee the measure now only applies to “parents who do nothing.” Dennis also likened the law to “a carrot and stick approach.”

For the sake of not sounding like a complete monster who wants to terrorize children already stressed by circumstances they had no hand in creating, the bill would not apply to children with handicaps or learning disabilities. Ditto for parents who seek to improve their child’s performance in skill – vis–à–vis – signing up for a “parenting class,” arranging a tutoring program or attending a parent-teacher conference.

That doesn’t chip away at any of the coldness my heart has for this heartless bill.

Several factors determine how well a kid performs in school, but increasing a child’s chances of showing up to school by distracting him with raging hunger isn’t exactly logical. Hungry, stressed kids does not equal 'grade booster.' Not to mention, as much as we should be encouraging parents to take a greater interest in their child’s place of learning, where are the efforts to ask the same of higher-earning income parents? I’ll wait.

In an email to Think Progress, Clergy For Justice co-organizer Kathy Chambers says of HB 0261 and SB 0132: “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.” 

DoSomething.Org, the country’s largest nonprofit for young people and social change, notes that “40 percent of children living in poverty aren’t prepared for primary schooling.” Plus, by “the end of the 4th grade, African-American, Hispanic and low-income students are already two years behind grade level. By the time they reach the 12th grade they are four years behind.” And sadly, “Children that live below the poverty line are 1.3 times more likely to have developmental delays or learning disabilities than those who don’t live in poverty.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau recently determined that 25.1 percent of African-American households and 29.2 percent of households with children are food insecure.

Writing to The Christian Post, Leonetta Elaiho, director of Youth and Community Engagement, U.S. Programs at World Vision explained, "While there are indicators that the economy is recovering, children and ethnic minorities that were disproportionately impacted during the recession continue to struggle and lag behind in the recovery.”

So we know poverty and hunger are detrimental to children’s performance in education. It’s painfully clear that both poverty and childhood hunger are steadily rising. We know this disproportionately hurts minorities. And yet, Republican lawmakers are introducing legislation at the state level that would lead to already hungry children living on meager means losing some of what little they already have because they’re not performing well at school – partially caused by hunger and poverty.

Naturally, this news comes on the heels of Newt Gingrich saying he’d like to bring GOP members to Black districts for “outreach.” I’d say go Black folks and throw some tomatoes, but clearly now is not the time to be wasting food. Feel free to boo, hiss, boo if you bother to attend any of these events, though.

Michael Arceneaux is a Houston-bred, Howard-educated writer and blogger. You can read more of his work on his site, The Cynical Ones. Follow him on Twitter: @youngsinick