Supporting School Success for Children Receiving TANF
This week, committees in the Tennessee legislature approved a bill that would cut parents' TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) cash assistance benefits if their children failed to be promoted to the next grade at school. This proposal is based on an inaccurate and stereotyped belief that poor parents need to be coerced into caring about their children's school achievement. If enacted, it will create new paperwork burdens for schools and welfare agencies, already straining under budget cuts. Most importantly, it risks pushing the most vulnerable children even deeper into poverty.
If legislators really want to improve educational outcomes for children whose families receive TANF, here are some policies that would actually make a difference.
1. Raise TANF grants or other benefits that help meet basic needs. It's hard to do well in school when you're hungry, or when you're sleeping on the couch in the living room with too many other people. And parents who are stressed about the heat being turned off or where they're going to sleep next week are less likely to be able to read to their children or help with homework. This intuition is supported by a recent rigorous study, which found that increased income from the EITC had a direct and positive impact on children's reading and math scores - and that impact was larger for the most disadvantaged families. For perspective, the monthly maximum TANF benefit for a family of three in Tennessee is $185, while the Fair Market Rent for a two bedroom apartment is $720 a month. In every state in the US, maximum TANF benefits are less than half of the federal poverty level.
2. Support education and training for parents in families receiving TANF. Mothers' educational levels are among the strongest predictors of children's educational success. Moreover, a key finding from welfare-to-work research is that when low-income parents increase their knowledge and skills, this success spills over to their children, who then become higher achievers in school. More educated parents are able to assist their children with school work, as well as serve as role models for the value of education.
3. Ensure that families have access to home visiting and child care services that work for them and their families. Home visiting is an outreach and service delivery strategy that builds on families' strengths to increase parents' capacity for effective parenting and support children's development, including pre-literacy skills in some models. HHS has identified a number of home visiting models that have shown demonstrable outcomes related to increasing children's readiness for school. Many studies have proven that poor children are more likely to begin school way behind their peers from more advantaged families. Both high quality child care services and home visiting programs can begin to level the field and help ensure that all children enter school academically and developmentally ready to succeed.
4. Don't sanction parents for attending parent-teacher conferences, individualized education plan meetings, or other events critical to child well-being. Under the TANF work participation rate, states must engage recipients in a minimum number of hours per week of federally countable activities, or are subject to financial penalties. States do not get credit toward this rate for engaging parents in events that are not related to work, such as parent-teacher conferences. Therefore, in many states, a parent who misses a portion of an assigned work activity to go to a critical meeting at school may be sanctioned with a loss of TANF benefits.
Improving children's educational outcomes is a worthy goal, and TANF can be part of a thoughtful response. But there should be no room for grandstanding at the expense of low-income children and families.