New Michigan legislation to punish the poor


This week the Michigan Legislature passed House Bill 4041, what they call the Parental Responsibility Act. Gov. Snyder is probably eager to sign it because it has the word “responsibility” in it and impacts only the politically powerless. The Michigan Department of Human Services will be required to eliminate cash assistance to poor families if any child in the household under age 16 is repeatedly absent from school.

On the face of it this seems like a good “enforcement” idea because education is indeed the route out of poverty in the long term. But passing this bill is just more grandstanding by a do-pretty-much-nothing legislature that’s got no handle on solutions to the real and overarching problems confronting Michigan.

It’s worth noting that under the previous DHS policy related to compulsory school attendance, only 189 individuals were sanctioned in FY 2013-14, and only 68 in the first quarter of this year. That’s out of an estimated 165,786 individual recipients of financial assistance. That policy required the removal of only the offending child’s share from the cash grant, still a punishing reduction in income for those living in poverty. But in the GOP’s ongoing whip cracking to get everyone to fit in their ideological mold, they pulled out a bill that had languished away in a desk drawer, dusted it off, tweaked its cheeks, passed it, and are now standing there in shiny parade formation awaiting the approving salutes and nods from those who think this is big stuff, that “that’ll teach ’em.” Rejoice that a single recalcitrant child can now render his family penniless and possibly homeless.

What is more likely to happen, however, is that the child will be driven from the family to live with others or to go into the delinquency or foster care system as an incorrigible truant, and the costs to the taxpayer will expand beyond the horizon. Or, as happened in the old days of public assistance when households with a father present were denied help and families just hid all signs of him (especially his shoes) before the social workers arrived, the child will continue to live in the home while the parent claims he’s gone to live with friends or relatives.

Aside from the obvious problem of the state further pummeling the poor, there are other school attendance issues that merit consideration:

  1. Let’s start by asking who will enforce the attendance of children who receive assistance and are home-schooled? Will parents threatened with cancellation of assistance duck behind the “home schooling” cover to elude the consequences? Home schooling is largely unscrutinized in Michigan. Will there be fair application of the law?
  2. Verification of school attendance was part of the old AFDC assistance program in decades past. It had little impact on school attendance because verification was required infrequently, only during eligibility reviews twice each year.
  3. This bill would create another Catch-22 situation in a system already fraught with them. Consider the older child who must be the stay-at-home child care provider for younger sibling or caregiver for an elderly or disabled family member so that a parent can meet the work requirements already included in the system. This is common when there are no suitable caregivers available or the cost of care is prohibitive. Having the agency tell the parent he or she must make other care arrangements does not solve the problem when no other arrangements are feasible.
  4. Some older children find jobs that add to a family’s income and their ability to meet their immediate needs with no consideration of the cost to the child’s future. Planning for one’s future is a luxury when money must be found to keep the heat on or to avoid an eviction.
  5. Some older children skip school because of bullying, violence or threatened violence on the streets they must travel to get to school, or because they lack transportation in areas where walking to school is impractical due to distance.
  6. Other children with unaddressed behavioral problems miss school due to repeated suspensions. The behavior then becomes doubly punished for the child and his family.
  7. Some miss school because of a lack of shoes, boots, clothing, dental care, corrective lenses or hearing aids required for participation. I know of a young girl whose malacluded teeth were such an object of ridicule by other children that attending school meant continual humiliation despite teachers’ best efforts to correct the offending children. There was no money for corrective orthodontia so she often took a break from school and the playground torment. Would piling on more punishment really help this girl and her poor family?

In the past schools were required to report chronic absenteeism to Children’s Protective Services in hopes social workers could assist the family with issues interfering with school attendance. This helped some families. Then the law was changed to require schools to make direct reports of chronic absenteeism to the Family Court. The hope was that the heavy hand of the court could ensure school attendance. This was not entirely effective and brought more youth into the Delinquency system.

It is easy to understand the public’s and the GOP legislators’ frustration with the poor and their seeming failure to take advantage of opportunities to improve their situations, but that’s because there is little understanding of the dynamics of life in poverty. Adding punitive measures to lives already congested with obstacles will not ensure full attendance at school.

If the Christians in the legislature believe in the biblical admonition that the poor will always be with us, they have to accept that things will always be slippery and messy in the mud at the bottom of the ladder up from poverty.

Being punitive in our approach to social problems has given us the largest number of inmates in the world, an increasing number of children living in poverty, and a resource and time-starved public school system that cannot meet all children’s educational needs. If the legislature wants to demonstrate that they are doing something, anything, to improve life in this state, they should stop targeting the poor who lack any significant political power, and show enough courage to require corporations to pay their fair share of taxes so the state can better deal with the problems of the environment, the schools, the roads and the poor.