It’s hard enough to study when you’re hungry. Now imagine your family budget depends on your grades. In Tennessee it soon may … if you’re poor. (More)

Net Worth and Human Value, Part I: Tennessee May Cut Struggling Students’ Family Aid

This week Morning Feature explores a core tenet of modern conservatism: that net worth marks human value. Today we begin with a Tennessee bill that would link Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to children’s school performance. Tomorrow we’ll look at preferential taxes and subsidies for billionaires and big corporations. Thursday we’ll conclude with the flawed moral reasoning of wealth privilege.

“A carrot and stick approach”

That’s how Tennessee state senator Stacey Campbell (R) describes Senate Bill 132, which would cut family assistance payments by 30% for parents whose children struggle in school. The 1996 welfare reform law replaced Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and related federal programs with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a program that block grants funds for states to administer and regulate.

Tennessee state representative Vance Dennis (R), who cosponsored the bill, says it will encourage poor parents to be more involved in their children’s schoolwork. The bill was amended to add exemptions for students with diagnosed learning disabilities, and for parents who sign up for eight hours of parenting classes, hire a tutor, enroll the child in summer school, or attend at least two parent-teacher conferences.

Those amendments are not enough, state representative and high school teacher Gloria Johnson (D) told The Grio:

It’s just one more way to punish families who have fallen on hard times. I don’t believe for a second this will be anything to improve a child’s education. … To add the responsibility of the family budget on these kids, it’s not going to help these kids. It’s not going to move them forward. It sets up a terrible relationship between families and educators. It sets up animosity between school and home.

State representative Mike Turner (D) agreed, saying the bill is another example of his state’s legislature “trying to set back the working class people.”

“Sometimes I can even buy fruit for the children”

Senator Campbell claims his bill is based Brazil’s Bolsa Família. That program, like many in Central and South America, rewards families who keep their children in school rather than sending them to work in sweatshops. Brazilian mother Dinalva Pereira de Moura explained what that means to her family:

It has been a marvelous thing for me and my family. I have three children and my husband is unemployed. The Bolsa Família helps me buy food. Sometimes I can even buy fruit for the children. My children know that when we receive the money, they will have more to eat, and that makes them happier. And they don’t skip school, because they know that the money depends on their going.

The surface similarities obscure harsh differences. Bolsa Família was created to ensure that children of poor families don’t need to drop out of school and work factory jobs to support their parents and siblings. But child labor has long been illegal in the U.S., and the children whose families would be affected by Senate Bill 132 are already in school. Indeed Tennessee already cuts TANF payments by 20% to parents whose children do not meet school attendance standards.

Senate Bill 132 also exempts parents whose children are home schooled. Rather than let their benefits be cut, parents could pull their children out of school. As Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner said, “I guess a person who wants to get around this just can say ‘I’m home schooling my children’,” precisely reversing the incentive of Bolsa Família.

“This is about people who take from others”

Representative Johnson also noted that the bill does not address higher-income parents who ignore their children’s educational needs, prompting this reply from a reader calling himself Panman:

Ms. Johnson, higher income families are not using my money to live on. This is about people who take from others and make very little effort to improve their station in life.

Being accountable for your actions has consequences. Maybe this will make some of these folks think about whose going to pay the bills before they start a family.

In later replies he added:

One generation after another living on welfare is enough proof for me that nobody seems to be interested in trying to improve their station in life. Our children didn’t have a problem in school and have become strong young men who also take care of their families. Of course I’m sure you wouldn’t give my wife and I any credit for discipline, family unity and setting an example as part of their success.
[…]
You need to be praying hard for those taking advantage of others with no real meaning in their lives other than neglecting their children, stealing, doing drugs, murdering and birthing out of wedlock.

There we see the conservative moral frame: net worth equals human value. He takes credit for his and his children’s success through “discipline, family unity and setting an example,” while saying the poor “make very little effort to improve their station in life.”

“Even if you only receive $1, that month will count”

Worse, Panman’s caricature of struggling families – “One generation after another living on welfare” … “neglecting their children, stealing, doing drugs, murdering and birthing out of wedlock” – ignores the strict limitations already imposed by TANF:

You can only get TANF for 5 years. This limit applies to all adults and heads of households. The clock on your 5 years started 3/3/97 or if you did not get TANF until after that date, the day you began getting cash assistance. Adults who reach the 5 year limit cannot collect TANF for themselves or their children. If you get any benefits from TANF during a month, even if you only receive $1, that month will count as one month against your 5 year limit. Periods of receipt need not be consecutive to count towards the 5 year limit.
[…]
Every adult recipient is required to sign an Agreement of Mutual Responsibility (AMR) and, if you are not working at least 20 hours a week, you must do an 8 week job search. If you do not find employment of at least 20 hrs/week after completing the job search, you and your worker will determine what work activity is needed to make you employable. During the first 12 months on TANF, the work activity requirement can be met by participating in education/training activities. After 12 months, you can continue education/training but you must combine this with work activities.

For the first 24 months on TANF there is no specific number of hours/week you must do a work activity. After 24 months, you must be involved in a work activity for at least 20 hours/week.

A March 2012 Urban Institute study of 27,000 single parents who had been TANF recipients found that “only one in four experienced a sizable increase in earnings over a three-year follow-up period.” Layoffs and inadequate training and education programs kept many bouncing from one low-wage job to the next. And Tennessee Republicans want to increase these burdens.

That’s not “a carrot and stick approach.” It’s all stick, punishing poor families for the moral failure of … being poor.

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Happy Tuesday!