Punishing children for poverty

Tennessee legislation that would peg a family's welfare benefits to children's grades is part of the ongoing nationwide war on the poor, writes Nicole Colson.

Stacey CampfieldStacey Campfield

IMAGINE THAT you're an 8-year-old child. Your family receives welfare. Maybe your mom is a single mother who works a low-wage job (or more than one low-wage job) with no benefits. Your family may not be able to make the rent this month, and there's not much left in the house to eat. Your family gets food stamps, but they don't stretch very far.

Now imagine you--a hungry, worried kid--were told that if you don't get good enough grades at school, the little bit of government assistance your family receives could be snatched away.

That could soon be the reality for schoolchildren in Tennessee. Currently, a bill known as HB261/SB132 is making its way through the state legislature. If passed, it would mandate that if a child fails a grade and their parents don't attend two parent-teacher conferences, the family's Temporary Assistance to Needy Family (TANF)/Families First benefits could be cut by up to 30 percent.

Some 52,800 Tennessee families currently receive state TANF benefits. The maximum TANF benefit is $185 a month. Struggling families could see that cut to $129.50--a significant drop in for those trying to make ends meet. Tennessee already ties welfare benefits to a child's school attendance.

Supporters of the legislation say there should be nothing stopping parents from attending a parent-teacher conference. But that's hard to do for low-wage workers who frequently don't get paid vacation or sick days, or any sort of flexibility in their schedules.

In a comment on a petition against the bill organized by the group Clergy for Justice, Melissa Jennings, a former welfare recipient, explained her own struggle to feed her kids:

I have been on assistance since I was laid off three years ago and chose to go back to school. If not for that help, my children and I would have starved. I have not been through a drive-through or eaten in a restaurant in over two years...My kids don't get to go to McDonald's or Dairy Queen, but that assistance has provided me the only way I have to "treat" my kids, and cook them healthy meals...This assistance has allowed me to allow them to "fit in" [at school] and take part in what is asked of them.

Now I am graduating in one month, as a provider to the community, and will more than pay back my share of the benefits given to my family. It has been a needed and appreciated stepping-stone for me, and not everyone abuses the system. I will gladly pay my share of taxes to help support those in need, because if my fellow community had not done the same for me, what would my kids have done?

A former teacher who also signed the petition noted, "I have seen firsthand what lack of food does to a child in an educational setting. When you are hungry, you cannot learn. It is just that simple."

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BUT TENNESSEE state Rep. Stacey Campfield, the sponsor of the legislation, doesn't care about any of that.

Campfield claims his bill will help "break the cycle of poverty." He never explains how, of course, beyond vague assurances that "education" magically lifts children out of poverty.

In particular, Campfield fails to acknowledge that even the best teachers can't overcome the effects of poverty on children. According to the findings announced last year by the National Institutes of Health, "The stresses of poverty--such as crowded conditions, financial worry and lack of adequate child care--lead to impaired learning ability in children from impoverished backgrounds."

But you really didn't need a study to prove what every teacher already knows: That kids who didn't eat enough last night or who worry about whether they will have a bed to sleep in tonight, suffer academically. The last thing they or their families need is a threat of being driven deeper into poverty hanging over their heads.

According to Campfield, however, it's the poor themselves--and the bleeding heart liberals who show concern about their fate--who are to blame:

Liberals have fooled people into thinking that they are automatically entitled to other peoples [sic] money without having to do anything to get it. That any sort of standard of accountability for that money is some sort of "unfair punishment" on them. There is a solution for this "grave indignity" perpetrated against them. Don't apply for the money. There are plenty of others who would be happy to do what it takes to take their place.

What makes Campfield's vitriol all the more grotesque is that the people he's talking about are impoverished children. He sees no problem in literally taking the food out of their mouths.

But in that respect, Campfield isn't alone. It's fitting that one of the most recent entries on Campfield's blog--just before he wittily compared Jersey Shore's Snooki to North Korean leader Kim Jung-un--is a quote from the Iron Lady herself, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: "Do you know that one of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas."

The "thoughts and ideas" put forward by reactionaries like Campfield are part of a vicious attempt to do away with the remaining shreds of the social safety net.

In that respect, this newest war on the poor is a lot like the old war on the poor--and its victim-blaming prejudices extend beyond right-wingers like Campfield.

Consider the recent episode titled "Trends with Benefits" on National Public Radio's liberal This American Life program. The premise? That as the number of welfare recipients has declined--because of harsh restrictions at the federal and state level--the poor have been taking advantage of the Supplemental Security Insurance program, leading to a corresponding increase in disability claims. The basic argument is that poor people are shirking work by wrongly claiming they or their kids are disabled. Anything to "pull" a government check, reporter Chana Joffe-Walt suggests.

As Media Matters and others have pointed out, the This American Life report was riddled with errors. The increase in those claiming benefits is a direct result of an increase in child poverty and the prolonged economic downturn. More children with disabilities have become eligible for benefits, notes Media Matters, as their families have lost jobs and been plunged deeper into poverty.

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THE BELIEF that poor people are lazy and responsible for their own poverty is part and parcel of an ideological assault on social programs and government spending that extends back to the late 1970s and 1980s.

Thus, in Britain this week, Thatcher's death was greeted by some with the old refrain, "Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher"--a reference to Thatcher's cuts to Britain's state education system, including eliminating free milk for schoolchildren aged 7 to 11. Thatcher assured the press at the time that only a few children would suffer as a result. The rest didn't need this benefit.

Thatcher wasn't alone, of course. In the U.S., her pal Ronald Reagan hyped the myth of the "welfare queen"--the fictional Black woman who drove around the ghetto in a Cadillac, living the good life on welfare.

The reality was much different than the myth--poor people receiving government assistance were a convenient scapegoat. Reagan and other champions of what would become known as neoliberalism spouted lies about the supposed moral failings and lack of a work ethic among the poor--as an excuse to justify cuts to the social programs that millions of working people had fought for in the 1960s.

Cutting back on government aid would force people back into the workforce, according to the Reaganites. Whether there were jobs for them or not--and whether those jobs paid enough to actually support a family--was never really addressed by political leaders. The rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. Or, more accurately, the rich got richer because they were making the poor poorer.

Reagan and now Thatcher are dead, but Reaganism and Thatcherism live on in the drive to impose austerity measures that punish the poor, which continues to this day.

We saw the same reactionary politics dressed up with a liberal façade under Democratic President Bill Clinton, who promised to "end welfare as we know it." The welfare reform law passed halfway into his presidency capped lifetime benefits at five years and promoted "workfare" programs that shunted welfare recipients into low-wage jobs, some of them formerly union positions.

It was a good electoral strategy for Clinton, who used his tough new law on welfare to pose as a Democratic "realist" who wasn't afraid to defy the party's liberal base. The law was called the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act"--as if the problem was that poor people simply weren't taking "responsibility" for their poverty.

The numbers of those on welfare did decrease--because most moved into working poverty, with low-wage jobs and no benefits. That's because Clinton's talk about "ending welfare as we know it" was divorced from any discussion about measures such as raising the minimum wage or providing health care, child care or other services needed by the poor and working poor.

The neoliberal assault on workers and the poor is continuing today as Barack Obama proposes to historic cuts to Social Security--after promising to protect popular programs like this during his re-election campaign.

In an Internet comment defending his bill to cut welfare benefits to kids who fail a grade, Stacey Campfield spoke of enforcing a "standard of accountability" against welfare recipients. But where is the standard of accountability for those who have wasted trillions of dollars on war and occupations in pursuit of imperial power and unjust wars? Where is the accountability for the corporate giants and obscenely rich individuals who avoid taxes at every turn? Or those who caused the foreclosure crisis and then ripped off U.S. taxpayers to the tune of tens of billions of dollars? They've returned to profitability, but workers who lost their jobs remain largely out of luck.

In this sense, a bill like Campfield's--which, thankfully, has sparked enough outrage to prompt even Tennessee's Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to say he won't sign it--isn't the product of one lone right-winger's fevered imagination. It's one more attack on the little help that remains available to poor people in the U.S.--and we should call it out as such.