I spent all of last week back in Tennessee, where this story was beginning to get some statewide attention. As of today, it's national, with Fox News joining in on the coverage:
A Tennessee lawmaker is pushing a controversial new bill that would tie welfare benefits to students' performance in school.
Republican state Sen. Stacey Campfield introduced the legislation last week, calling for the state to cut welfare benefits to parents whose kids don't do well in class.
He says it will force parents to take a more active role in their children’s education. Critics, though, are panning the proposal as unfair, and one that could hurt children in the end.
Currently, parents of children who receive welfare benefits through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program can see their benefits cut by 20 percent if their child doesn't show up for school. Campfield's proposal goes a step further and requires students make "satisfactory academic progress."
Now, let's stipulate that Tennessee does have a real welfare problem. It has the fifth highest number of per-capita recipients in the nation. There are serious pockets of both rural (Appalachia) and urban (inner-city Memphis, for example) poverty.
That being said, there's got to be a better way to skin this cat. We too often forget that the federal welfare reform of the mid 90s was actually sold as an instrument for empowering welfare recipients. This effort, by contrast, is going to be hard to portray as anything other than punitive.
Tying benefits to attendance makes sense. If a welfare recipient's child is a perpetual truant, we can draw a direct line between absenteeism and the vigilance of the parent. But there are far more factors than go into a child's academic performance. If the size of anyone's check is on the line, it probably makes more sense to start with schools and teachers (and even then, it's an exceedingly blunt instrument).
For those of us (the Kemp Caucus) who'd like conservatism to (A) actively aid and (B) actually have some appeal to the underclass, this is the worst of both worlds: a policy proposal that likely won't have the intended effects and that can easily be characterized as heartless.
If we want these people to like us, it'd help for us to start by not seeming like we're out to get them.