On March 26, House Bill 4014, which calls for tying state cash assistance benefits to student truancy rates, passed the state House of Representatives with a 74-36 vote. The bill simply legalizes what has already been practiced by the Department of Human Services since 2012, which The Michigan Daily’s Editorial Board criticized in an editorial in 2012. While admirable in its goal to decrease chronic truancy in Michigan public schools, the bill’s approach is misguided. This practice fails in four main ways: It punishes the entire family for the actions of just one of its members; it ignores many of the true causes of chronic truancy; it places too much responsibility on the shoulders of children; and it further hurts families who are already struggling financially, many of whom are minorities.
Cash assistance on welfare amounts to about $386 per month for the average family. Though removing cash assistance does correlate with decreased truancy rates in other states and also in Detroit Public Schools, it is a policy that’s flawed in principle. The bill blatantly ignores the myriad of reasons for chronic truancy. Aside from simply skipping school, students can be chronically truant because they don’t have adequate transportation to school, because of a medical condition or because they have to stay home and care for younger siblings. In other words, chronic truancy is sometimes the result of obstacles out of the control of children and parents, making it unfair to punish entire families for such obstacles.
Though it may be argued that the primary reason for chronic truancy is students simply choosing to skip school, if this is true, then it’s not wise to place an entire family’s cash assistance in the control of a student who chooses to do this. Furthermore, it could also be argued that the policy provides a financial incentive for families to discipline such rebellious youths. However, this doesn’t account for conditions parents could be facing, such as addiction and mental illness. If the family’s cash assistance is removed because of the actions of the truant child, these conditions can worsen. This policy also hurts families who are already struggling financially, potentially worsening problems — such as inadequate transportation — that caused truancy in the first place.
Statistics also show that many families on welfare are ethnic and racial minorities. By making these families’ financial problems worse, the mission of diversifying the state’s educated population could suffer with the passing of this legislation.
Not only is it evident that this bill oversimplifies the complicated nature of truancy, it also operates on shaky statistics. Governor Rick Snyder (R), a proponent of the bill, said in his January 2014 State of the State address, “If we don’t know what the truancy numbers are, how do you solve the problem, and we’re not doing our data appropriately in the state.” This suggests that the state doesn’t truly have enough information to synthesize legislation that attacks the roots of the problem.
Aside from these issues, the bill’s fundamental philosophy toward increasing attendance and incentivizing education is misplaced. Simple psychology shows that positive reinforcement is more effective in encouraging behaviors than negative punishments for not performing the desired behavior. Education should be incentivized with an emphasis on positive outcomes instead of an emphasis on fear of negative outcomes. Additionally, arguing for this bill on the basis that it provides a cash incentive for school attendance effectively places a financial value on education. This mentality undermines the true value of receiving an education, which extends far beyond the potential monetary gains it provides.
Though removing cash assistance from families who receive welfare benefits has been an effective punishment in that it has decreased truancy, it does not take into account the complexities of truancy and is unfounded in principle. Legislators need to gain a better understanding of this problem before passing laws that address it.