Being a kid living in poverty is tough enough. Being a kid living in the kind of poverty that comes with reliance on Tennessee's rock-bottom TANF benefits has to be simply brutal. And then having your family face a 30 percent reduction in benefits if your report card isn't good enough? That's something well beyond brutal. State legislators say they've made the bill fair and good by including a few ways to avert the cuts:
As amended, it would not apply when a child has a handicap or learning disability or when the parent takes steps to try improving the youngster’s school performance—such as signing up for a “parenting class,” arranging a tutoring program or attending a parent-teacher conference.Great. Parents struggling to get by—struggling to fulfill TANF's significant work requirements and to stay housed on a benefit that, as of 2011, provided 26.4 percent of rent costs in Tennessee—now also have to figure out how to find time for and transport themselves to parenting classes or parent-teacher conferences if their kids' report cards don't satisfy Tennessee's legislators.
With Tennessee's TANF levels plus food stamps not being enough to get a family of three to half of the poverty level in 2011, those kids are arriving at school with a lot of reasons to be distracted from their school work: hunger, inadequate shelter, the gnawing stress of an unstable life. Now those kids are essentially asked to bear the burden of maintaining their families' cash incomes, or putting additional burdens on their parents. The math a kid living on TANF is concerned with is likely this: How many hours ago did I have my last meal? How many days overdue is the rent or the electric bill? And, if this bill passes: What score do I need on this next test to keep my family's income from being slashed?
TANF is a cruel mockery of a safety net. Tennessee Republicans have found a way to make it crueler, and to use it to more directly target children.