Friday, October 5, 2012

Cut Class, Lose Welfare—MI’s Latest Attempt to Bail Itself Out on the Backs of the Poor

Get to Class, Punk (Image from Flickr, by DonkeyHotey)

A new Michigan law (effective October 1) requires all children to be in school full time or the entire family will become ineligible to receive welfare benefits, the Detroit News reports. Furthermore, all new cash-assistance applicants will now be required to prove school enrollment for their children and good attendance in order to receive aid, while families that have lost benefits due to truancy will have to prove their child has attended school for 21 consecutive days before they can regain eligibility.

Of course it is difficult to succeed in school if you do not go to class and truancy certainly hurts schools’ finances since revenues are based on average daily attendance. But it is cruel and stupid to strip welfare benefits from an entire family, potentially harming the health, safety and educational outcomes of younger siblings, because of the behavior of one child, particularly when truancies are often unavoidable products of poverty.

Many lower income children miss class for untreated medical conditions. Without health insurance or resources for preventable care, minor treatable conditions can worsen to the point that students are in too much pain to attend class. They may even require hospitalization. Lower income children also have higher rates of asthma, diabetes, anemia and other chronic conditions that can lead to long-term absences or hospitalization, particularly when treatment is out of reach. Even “excusable” medical absences can become “cuts” if they last longer than a few days and a doctor’s note cannot be obtained (which is not uncommon when the student cannot afford to see a doctor in the first place).

Lower income kids also sometimes stay home from school to care for younger siblings or older relatives so their parents can go to work. While this is unfortunate for the children who are missing out on school and being forced to grow up more quickly than their peers, it is also a product of poverty. Affluent families are more likely to be able to afford day care, home care, private preschool and other resources for family members in need of supervision or care.

Some students cut class to avoid bullies or rival gangs. This is rarely seen as an “excusable” absence by schools. However, from the perspective of the child it may be the only reasonable choice when the alternative of coming to school includes the risk of injury or even death. Students also report cutting class because they live far away from school and cannot secure consistent transportation to school. Hunger, depression and other mental health issues can also keep some kids from attending school regularly.

In none of these examples is the threat of losing welfare benefits likely to change the behavior.

Of course there are plenty of kids who are truant purely to avoid the stress of classwork or to party with their friends. There are also plenty of kids who are truant because their parents keep them away from school for family vacations or social events. It is understandable and perhaps even justifiable to hold these parents accountable for their children’s unexcused absences, but the state of Michigan is unlikely to invest in sufficient social workers to visit every home of every truant student to assess the actual causes and legitimacy of the truancies.

More importantly, if the issue truly is children’s wellbeing, a one-size fits all punitive approach cannot succeed and will most likely have the opposite effect. Since the majority of chronic truancies are related to poverty, stripping poor families of their meager welfare benefits will only worsen their poverty, while completely ignoring root causes of truancy like inadequate transportation, poor access to health care, gang violence, lack of child care for siblings, hunger and depression.

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