Starving the Victims

I’ve often marveled at the strange doings of Tennessee’s recently conquered Republican legislature, but the Volunteer State’s right-wing solons are really outdoing themselves now, according to a report from Tom Humphrey of the Knoxville News-Sentinel:

Legislation to cut welfare benefits of parents with children performing poorly in school has cleared committees of both the House and Senate after being revised to give the parents several ways to avoid the reductions.

The state Department of Human Services, which worked with Republican sponsors to draft the changes, withdrew its previous opposition to SB132. But the measure was still criticized by Democrats, including Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah. It calls for a 30 percent reduction in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to parents whose children are not making satisfactory progress in school.

Yes, there are exemptions for kids with diagnosed learning disabilities, and parents can get around the cut by signing up for “parenting classes” or otherwise jumping through hoops. But it’s still a classic example of “blaming the victim”–or maybe “starving the victim.”

Johnson, a teacher, said the bill will still put “the burden of the family budget on children’s performance in school” and that would mean a “huge stress on a young person who is trying to do what he can.”

She also said the legislation targets “struggling families,” while there is nothing that addresses higher-income parents who ignore their children’s school problems.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said parents of children with “undiagnosed learning disabilities” could suffer because of the bill and, even if a child is performing poorly in school, “the kid still has to eat.”

Turner also said the bill apparently does not apply to home-schooled children and, “I guess a person who wants to get around this just can say ‘I’m home schooling my children’.”

Yes, I know “parental involvement” in schools is much-valued now, perhaps too much in some respects (a lot of the “help your kids with homework” talk these days would have been called “cheating” when I was in school, and inherently favors kids with parents who have the time, resources, and education to pitch in). But you can’t help but suspect these legislators would just as soon eliminate welfare altogether and/or treat it as a privilege people have to earn by performing tasks that may be beyond their practical means.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.