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Good Grades or No Groceries: Linking Entitlements to School Performance

Here's a new one: Two Republican state legislators in Tennessee are pushing legislation which would penalize parents whose children have less than satisfactory grades by reducing their government assistance up to 30%. The latest example of Ronald Reagan’s fantastical T-bone eating, Cadillac driving ‘welfare queen’ meme, is Tennessee’s  Senate Bill 132/ House Bill 261  sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville)and Rep. Vance Dennis (R-Savannah) This reduction can be set aside only if the parent or caregiver attends 8 hours of mandatory parenting classes and two or more parent-teacher conferences.

One of the law's proponents, Rep.  Vance Dennis told the Tennessee House Health Subcommittee the measure now only applies to “parents who do nothing,” and described the measure as “a carrot and stick approach.”  

This legislation is just the latest stunning example of a double standard in how policymakers are obsessed with disciplining the poor while not applying similar standards of responsibility elsewhere. Imagine legislation reducing tax breaks to ExxonMobil by 30% because its CEO's kid failed their high school geometry class. Or picture a state or city government that reduces a tax credit by nearly a third and mandates parenting classes when the kids of owner of a sports team or big box store gets a D in English. These ideas would be preposterous, but this kind of micromanagement is par for the course for low-income and poor families.

The economic logic of targeting the poor as a means of fiscal austerity ignores the actually big ticket budgetary items like corporate welfare, tax dodging schemes, and federal defense -- not to mention the home mortgage interest deduction. Tennessee in particular gives away an estimated 5% of state and local revenue to large agricultural interests and wealthy individuals. If you look at this chart showing Tennessee spending in the last ten years, you'll find that programs targeted to the poor never surpassed more than 1.5% of GDP.

Update: Bowing to mounting opposition, Tennessee State Sen. Stacey Campfield has recently asked to have SB 0132, the so-called "Education to End Poverty Act" sent to a committee that will study the legislation this summer. In an interchange straight out of a Dickensian novel, Campfield’ s response to an eight year-old opponent of the bill who was worried about the lights being cut off was, “That won’t happen as long as you have a decent parent who can show up for two conferences.” While the fate of this one bill is uncertain, the larger double standard toward recipients of corporate welfare is not.