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 – Published on Socialist Worker.org, by Nicole Colson, April 11, 2013.

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 struggling 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 … //

… 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-wave 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.
(full text with hyper-links and links to related articles).


No More Random Acts, on ZNet, by Cynthia Peters, April 10, 2013;

Leaked report: Nearly half of US drone strikes in Pakistan not against al-Qaeda, on Russia Today RT, April 11, 2013;

US does not want a war, they want regime change in North Korea, on Russia Today RT, April 11, 2013.

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