If Tennessee state Sen. Stacey Campfield had his way, low-income families would lose a share of their welfare benefits when their children struggle in school. The outline of his approach, which is stalled but not dead, drew national attention this month and sparked a new debate over what policies actually help families escape poverty.
Before getting into the merits of the proposal, it's worth trying to understand the rationale behind Campfield's Education to End Poverty Act. Although the long-range goal of the measure is to reduce the number of people in poverty, the primary intent is to improve the academic performance of low-income students. "I think we can all agree the top ticket to break the chain of poverty is education," Campfield, a Republican, wrote in an email.
Borrowing from ideas at the core of the K-12 education reform movement, Campfield argues that state governments and many school districts already hold schools and teachers accountable for student test scores; now, he says, it's time to apply the same standard to parents. Using the loss of welfare payments as a stick, state government could compel greater parent involvement in a student's education -- something, he says, "they should already be doing to break the cycle of generational poverty."
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So if a low-income student performs poorly in school, parents would face a 30 percent reduction in cash assistance, which translates to $55.50 gone from a maximum monthly payment of $185 for a three-person household. Although families have some latitude on how to spend the money, it typically covers housing, utilities, transportation and other necessities, according to Devin Stone, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Human Services. But parents could prevent the loss of that money if they met certain requirements, such as attending two parent-teacher conferences, undergoing at least eight hours of parenting classes or enrolling the student in tutoring or summer school. "If the parent cannot spend two hours a year talking to teachers, if they care so little about their children to do anything," says Campfield, "then we're going to have to take some steps."
The idea, however, hasn't gone over well with constituents, Campfield's fellow legislators and the national media. About a half dozen Republican senators said they'd vote against the bill, forcing Campfield to send it back to committee for further study. In a segment of "The Daily Show," comedian Jon Stewart poked fun at the bill, comparing Campfield to a villain from a Charles Dickens novel. Fellow comedian Stephen Colbert on "The Colbert Report" also got in on the fun.
Stewart's mockery of the bill -- featuring a Tiny Tim-like boy who earns low marks in school because he's always hungry, but promises to do better despite being poorer and hungrier -- was on to something, say critics of the bill. The flaw in Campfield's bill, they argue, is that it could accomplish the exact opposite of its objectives, worsening students' performance and hurting their quality of life in the process. Campfield's assumption is that parents who don't participate in parent-teacher conferences would change that behavior to avoid losing $55 a month. That doesn't make sense to Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a researcher for the Center for Law and Social Policy, who points out that many welfare recipients miss school events because they hold multiple jobs, causing work conflicts.
The bill is "grounded in a stereotype that the reason a kid might be failing in school is because parents don't care," Lower-Basch says. "Overall, low-income parents do care very much about their children and want them to succeed."
While Campfield's proposal aims to spark change through the specter of lost financial assistance, other welfare experiments target the family environment by adding resources. The nonprofit Elev8, for instance, plants family advocates in schools in cities such as Baltimore, Chicago and Oakland, Calif.
At Elev8 Baltimore, the family advocate arranges for parent informational sessions at four K-8 city schools on a range of topics, including student health care, parent-teacher organizations and earning a GED. The meetings must be scheduled at all times of the day, including on weekends, says Mark Carter, a program director for Elev8 Baltimore, because "there are quite a few parents who are working two or three jobs [at] barely minimum wage."
One doesn't have to look as far as Baltimore to find an alternative to Campfield's welfare reduction model. Memphis launched a Family Rewards pilot program in 2011, which pays low-income families on the condition that students improve their school attendance and standardized test scores. The inspiration behind the Memphis program comes from conditional cash transfer programs in New York City, Africa and Latin America.