A Tennessee bill that would cut welfare benefits from parents with children who get bad grades in school passed both the state House and Senate last month. The lawmaker who introduced the bill, State Senator Stacy Campfield (R) said, “One of the top tickets to break the chain of poverty is education. We have done little to hold [parents] accountable for their child’s performance.” Under his plan, if a child fails to pass state competency tests or gets held back, the bill would cut nearly a third of that child’s family’s Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) benefits.
The fact that poor kids do far worse in school than their wealthier counterparts isn’t debatable. Among other deficits, poor children eat less well, get less sleep, have less quiet time to study, and typically perform more critical household functions (like caring for siblings). Yet it’s also true that astonishing achievers occasionally rise from ranks of the poor, sometimes becoming Supreme Court Justices or, even, President. Educating the poor is not only a moral responsibility in an egalitarian society, it has practical benefits for our world–as the state senator himself acknowledges when he says he wants to “break the chain of poverty” with education. The Tennessee bill’s attempt to force responsibility on parents for their children’s academic success is laudable in its way. Something needs to be done. But placing a responsibility on parents–here overwhelmingly single mothers–which they are largely ill-equipped to shoulder is unlikely to increase the chances of future kids rising from the economic ashes. Nor will it break the chain. The tenacious eight-year-old Tennessean Aamira Fetuga–who doesn’t think having less food on the family table before she does her homework will help her succeed–mounted an effective campaign against the idea. Fetuga (and the camera crew who followed her hounding Campfield at the state Capitol) seems to have convinced the senator to see things in a different light. He dropped the bill.