DC Councilmember Wants To Cut Off Welfare Benefits When Kids Skip School

Seems that bad ideas never die. They just come back in new guises. Thus we have DC Councilmember David Catania recycling the notion that poor parents should lose their public benefits if they don’t take specific steps to ensure their kids get educated.

Two years ago, Councilmembers Kwame Brown and Marion Barry proposed a bill that would have denied benefits to TANF parents unless they attended all PTA and parent-teacher meetings. Only exceptions were absences for “legitimate reasons” that could be documented.

No apparent awareness of the full range of barriers to compliance, e.g., non-emergency personal and family health problems, lack of child care, language barriers. But advocates raised them, and the sponsors had second thoughts.

Now Councilmember Catania wants to impose tougher financial penalties on parents whose children skip school, including (here it comes again) loss of welfare benefits. Maybe ultimately some jail time too.

“We’ve been soft on this issue too long,” he says. Let’s take our cue from what they do in Pima County, Arizona. Arizona is so enlightened on solutions to complex policy issues.

I’ve never been a parent. But my distinct impression — based on, among other things, my own youthful behavior — is that parents have relatively limited control over what their kids do and don’t do once they reach the age where chronic truancy is feasible and, to some, attractive.

Councilmember Catania apparently thinks otherwise. After all, the proposal is grounded in the notion that a large number of parents just shrug their shoulders when they’re told their kids didn’t show up for classes. If we wield a big enough stick, they’ll act on the problem.

What, I wonder, are poor parents supposed to do. Even if they’ve got the time and wherewithal for transportation to take their kids to school, what can they do to make sure they’ll stay there? If they tell their kids how important it is to get an education, will those given to truancy listen?

Catania’s plan won’t just punish parents for behavior they probably can’t control. It will punish all the children in the family. It will also exacerbate conditions that conduce to truancy, e.g., acute financial problems, instability, family stress and resulting frictions (or worse).

Well, this is an election year. And here in the District, Councilmember-candidates have seized on the very real problem of juvenile delinquency as a way of demonstrating their get-tough bona fides.

Perhaps when the dust settles, Councilmember Catania will realize that plunging troubled kids into destitution isn’t a way to get them back in the classroom — let alone engaged in learning.

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5 Responses to DC Councilmember Wants To Cut Off Welfare Benefits When Kids Skip School

  1. Anita says:

    It is a cowardly and ignorant thing that Councilman Catania is proposing. I think a wake-up call is in order. Perhaps, Mr. Catania should be compelled to spend 90 days in a shelter with one of the families which might become homeless, because they chose to eat instead of pay rent or utilities after losing their TANF benefits…for failing to shadow their chronically truant children throughout the school day.

  2. Catania’s strong medicine is really a poison pill. I strongly agree with Kathyrn Baer’s and Jonathan Smith’s (Legal Aid) opposition to this approach. Ignored in this and recent actions of the Mayor and a majority of the City Council is the harsh reality of being poor in DC, with TANF 60% of the federal poverty level for the majority of recipients (go to DC Fiscal Policy Institute for documentation). Could it be that with higher Metro/bus fares many families simply don’t have the money to send their children to school regularly, especially since Fenty/Rhee closed 23 neighborhood public schools? As of June 27, SmartStudent Pass costs $30 for one month Metro access, and D.C. Student Tokens cost $7.50 for 10 rides. Further, as Mai Abdul Rahman pointed out in her piece in NorthWest Current (June 30,2010), District government hasn’t taken advantage of federal funding for subsidizing transportation for low income folk (Job Access and Reverse Commute and the United We Ride programs). What a shame and how typical!

    Meanwhile, here is a sad commentary on the Council’s misplaced priorities: they cut $1.3 million in Adult Education in the FY2011 budget (compared to FY2010) and wiped out Emergency Rental Assistance entirely – in a depression for so many residents no less – while they voted 8 to 5 to defeat a very modest tax hike for wealthy residents (the Graham amendment) that would have avoided the new hurtful budget cuts and helped to partially restore the $50 million for affordable housing and other essential needs already cut in the FY 2010 budget. Both incumbent At-Large Council candidates, Mendelson and Catania voted for no tax hike for wealthy residents but did vote for new regressive fees that have the heaviest burden on low income residents. Have they no shame?

    David Schwartzman
    DC Statehood Green Party Candidate for At-Large Council

  3. Barrie Daneker says:

    Well your both wrong. Parents who are on TANF are supposed to be ensuring the welfare of their children. If they can’t get them to school then they can’t be paid TANF! They have a job we are paying them to do. If they can’t get their kid to school then they don’t get paid for their job. It’s child abuse and neglect if your kid is not in school. End the silly willy nilly and get tough! These kids will cost us more that the education costs and the Tanf if they are not educated, because they end up in prison which will cost us even more. Best we take the child from the parents and send them to boarding school and spend a few extra $’s then to just keep paying the cost and the TANF and end up with the same result. So to Anita and Mr. Schwartzmann your both all wet and dead wrong on this issue.

  4. Kathryn Baer says:

    By this logic, we should take all truant children and youth away from their parents. Yet we have ample data to show that foster care often produces very bad outcomes. So do the impacts of dire poverty, e.g., hunger, homelessness. You may want to get tough on poor parents, but it’s the children who will be hurt.

    Incidentally, as my post points out, the issue isn’t whether poor parents can get their kids to school. It’s whether they can get them to stay there. What would you propose they—and not-poor parents—do?

  5. We need tough love for the 1% on top with higher taxes and revenue channeled to low income programs gutted in the DC budget since 2008 (over $200 million in cuts). We need income security for the bottom 60% who now live below self-sufficiency because of the class war conducted by the big corporate sector and their bought and paid for politicians in our elected government. Thankfully the Occupy movement has reignited the issue of growing income inequality in our nation. Locally this class warfare is aptly called urban structural adjustment. The only solution is class warfare, non-violent of course, from the great majority.

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