An Appalling Welfare Proposal

How activists helped to defeat an appalling welfare proposal in Tennessee. By Joshua DuBois.

Little Aamira went to the Capitol to stare down a Senator—and she won.

Aamira Fetuga is an 8-year-old from Nashville, Tennessee. Sporting a purposeful walk and a smile that stretched from ear to ear, Aamira and her mother traveled to the Capitol building in Tennessee this past Thursday to protest a piece of legislation that offended her deeply.

State Senator Stacey Campfield, a Republican from Knoxville, had introduced a bill that would cut monetary assistance to poor families if their children fell behind in school. Aamira, like many around the country, didn’t like this, so she decided to let Senator Campfield know.

Aamira wasn’t alone. The group Clergy for Justice and low-income activists from around the state lined the hallways of the legislature to protest the bill that they called the “Starve the Children” legislation (they joined a choir singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” within earshot of Senator Campfield). They said that the bill created perverse incentives, pitting teachers grading papers against low income families whose already low levels of assistance could be cut. Even Senator Campfield’s Republican colleagues lodged protests, with Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Republican from Memphis, saying, “You can say that withholding the money from the parents doesn’t harm the child, but you’re fooling yourself.”

In the end, after all the hubbub and within hours of their dramatic hallway confrontation, Aamira won. That very same day Senator Campfield withdrew the offending legislation, moving it to a “summer study session.” But he’s threatening to bring it back in the future, saying on his blog, “time will tell.”

I’m glad Senator Campfield has a little more time to think. I’m also grateful that he had the chance to meet Aamira. But I hope that between now and the time the Senator reintroduces his bill, instead of just running into Aamira in the hallway of the legislature, he’ll consider joining her on a field trip or two.

Maybe if Senator Campfield stops by her school, or her after school program, or one of the other public elementary schools in low-income communities in Tennessee, he will see that the solutions to problems of poverty, dependency, and student achievement aren’t quite as simple as we often think.

For example, Senator Campfield could visit with Aamira’s mom Rasheedat, or one of the thousands of other parents in Tennessee who’ve been on welfare at some point in their lives. They would tell him that the average monthly welfare benefit for struggling families in Tennessee is about $164, hardly a boondoggle or a bailout. Under Campfield’s bill, if a child falls behind in school for whatever reason—and we all know there are a thousand reasons that kids fall behind—the state could dock up to $50 off that family’s benefit, cutting assistance to the poorest families to $114. Such a cut seems more likely to create a hungry stomach than improve a kid’s test score. And an 8-year old shouldn’t bear responsibility for a family’s monthly budget.

Campfield could also spend some time familiarizing himself with the new face of poverty in America. He might immerse himself in documentaries like the excellent PBS series “180 Days,” which shows the wide array of students struggling to make it in our public schools—some striving, some slacking; some parents engaged, many overwhelmed, still others delinquent. He could visit the Martha O’Bryan Community Center, a national model anti-poverty program right there in Nashville. Martha O’Bryan is building successful, self-sufficient children and families through pre-K programs, job training, and parent education, supported in part by the Obama administration’s Promise Neighborhood program. (Full disclosure: I attended Martha O’Bryan as a six-year-old when my mother was on welfare; my mom is now an executive at Vanderbilt University and is on Martha O’Bryan’s board of directors.)

Or Senator Campfield, a conservative Christian, could even look to the church. He’ll find an emerging group of pastors and congregations grappling with poverty in new ways around the country, spending more time in communities finding solutions than in ivory towers blaming those who are already struggling. There’s the Gospel Movements, a new group of evangelicals seeking to confront poverty and create opportunities in their cities, including in public schools. Or the excellent new book by Nicole Baker Fulgham, Educating All God’s Children, a treatise on what Christians can do to improve education for low-income kids.

We simply cannot win the war on poverty with long-range missiles—we have to grapple with issues up close, face to face with the people who are most affected. Hurling solutions from far away may create a stir, but it just doesn’t work. And when our weapons veer off course, they hurt the people who can afford it least.

The fact of the matter is, there are a lot of students in Tennessee—and states across the country—who are falling behind. Many are trying their best to succeed; some are not. Some parents are engaged; some are just trying to work enough hours to keep food on the table; and some are looking for handouts and quite simply not doing enough.

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The only way to sort it out is to spend time in these communities, with these parents, and with advocates who know the issues best. I’m glad Senator Campfield has taken an interest in urban poverty, but I hope he takes a closer look. Maybe he’ll even drop by Aamira’s school; I’m sure they’d welcome him with open arms.