By Jo Piazza / current.com / @jopiazza
What if welfare benefits were tied to a child's performance in school? Or to attendance? Would that make parents more accountable? Tennessee residents may soon find out.
It is one of the changes included in a new piece of legislation proposed by state Sen. Stacey Campfield that the Republican lawmaker hopes will help to pull Tennessee's children out of poverty.
"We have such a problem with generational poverty here," Campfield told Current on Tuesday morning. "I have always said the golden ticket out of poverty is education. And education, to me, is a three-part stool — schools, teachers and the family. We have already put a huge burden on our schools and our teachers. What we have not done is put a burden on the family to make sure they are stepping up to the plate."
Campfield cited situations in his district of parents dropping off their children at school at 11 a.m.
"Because that is when they decided to wake up — and the kids are still in their pajamas," he said.
He also cited parents who refuse to answer phone calls from teachers and school administrators.
"They block the number," Campfield said.
Senate Bill 132 would establish a mechanism whereby the state's Temporary Assistance to Needy Families payments would hinge on school-age children in the assisted household maintaining satisfactory progress in school.
The bill was expected to gain a sponsor in the state's House of Representatives on Tuesday morning in the form of Rep. Vance Dennis, also a Republican.
TANF is a program designed to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency. Created by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act instituted under President Bill Clinton in 1996, it is a federal assistance program that allocates block grants to states for distribution. States are given a fairly wide latitude in how they implement a TANF program.
"States have a lot of flexibility in terms of how much money they give out and how they choose to distribute it as a cash benefit. (Campfield's proposed legislation) isn't something that could be done with a benefit like SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], but it can be done with TANF," explained Dr. Curtis Skinner, a labor economist and the director of Family Economic Security at the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
The proposed legislation reminds Skinner of anti-poverty initiatives that involve conditional cash transfers. These provide low-income families with a cash payment contingent on certain behaviors. In Brazil, the program was known as the Bolsa Familia, or Family Grant, and in Mexico it was Oportunidades. According to a 2011 article in The New York Times, the requirements for families to receive the cash transfers varied, but included keeping kids in school, getting kids regular medical checkups, and attending workshops on nutrition or health.
"That sort of program has been effective in Mexico and Brazil and can encourage better school attendance and health care. There is a place for those sorts of programs," Skinner said.
But he added the caveat that those sorts of programs are often adding a benefit, rather than taking one away.
"TANF is a crucial lifeline for families, and it is a part of the safety net that is so important, it would be dangerous to link it to school attendance and performance, something that could be beyond the control of the family, especially if the schools are not good."
As a counter-argument, Campfield says that Tennessee has done everything that it can to improve school and teacher performance.
"We are already putting it on our teachers to perform. They get paid based on performance," Campfield said. "I am not asking these kids to split the atom. I am not asking them to rewrite the Magna Carta. I am talking about asking them to do the bare bones minimum to get to the next grade."
(Photo from Getty Images)