Reading this news article in which Tennessee legislators are tying welfare checks to student performance is deeply disturbing. Though Rep. Vance Dennis is right that teachers are concerned about parental involvement (or lack thereof) in their child’s education, SB132 is not the way to get parental involvement. This bill will functionally cut off many parents and students from the system, further eroding education in poverty stricken areas and individual children’s performance in education. We will see further development of mistrust against the state and the education system because legislators—in an effort to improve things—are taking the exact wrong steps due to a lack of fundamental understanding regarding poverty.
Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty has given me a lot of insight into this issue, though I am by no means and expert. Before reading, I often felt that the decisions poor people make (even those in my own family) often reflected poor choices. Those choices further eroded prospects for financial improvement. People are kept in a cycle of poverty because of these choices, yes, but they also have very few resources to see their way out of poverty.
Here are a few of the mindboggling and counterintuitive decisions poor people make:
1. Frequent moves—often poor people owe money at their previous locations, so they have to move.
2. Entertainment becomes most important—money gets filtered to entertainment; despite the fact that sometimes needs go unmet.
3. Extra money is to be shared with others in your community—money is seen as communal because when you’re destitute, or close to it, you have to be willing to share a windfall. If you don’t, then others aren’t compelled to share with you when they get a windfall and it is through sheer force of community that you often survive.
4. Discipline is not meant to fundamentally change behavior, but rather so that children can show remorse and ‘make up’ for the poor behavior.
Payne advocates for teaching the impoverished hidden rules that exist in the middle class. This would be explicit instruction to help move such people out of poverty and into the middle class. She does not pretend that everyone will be willing to do what is needed to move out of poverty. Certainly teaching families how to move out of poverty would be better use of public funds.
I cannot imagine how badly a child will feel when their parent’s check stops. I can’t imagine the family tension that would create, or how much more dysfunctional many of these families will become. This legislation shows the disconnect in understanding about poverty and issues that most affect the impoverished. Additionally, it strikes me as terribly ironic that people who probably never have experienced such a situation feel compelled and even entitled to try to legislate parenting in such a manner.