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State Rep. Says ‘Don’t Get Sick’ Bill Would Break Poverty Cycle

Alexander Mallin
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UPI/Bill Greenblatt

UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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JEFFERSON CITY (KMOX) -  A Republican in the Missouri state Capitol said Thursday that he wants to “break the state’s poverty cycle” by requiring the children of welfare recipients across the state to attend school for 90 percent of the school year, or else risk losing their family’s state benefits.

Rep. Steve Cookson, R-Poplar Bluff, said he proposed the measure in response to concerns from constituents.

“I was contacted by some education people,” Cookson said. “People that were out in the communities and around the state about some remedies to help them have students be at school in regular attendance so that they could positively impact the child with educational opportunities.”

The short bill would only add 25 words to state law: “School age children of welfare recipients must attend public school, unless physically disabled, at least ninety percent of the time in order to receive benefits.”

Cookson said he received an email sent by Superintendent Ron Holcer of the Meadville R-IV School District that was sent to Rep. Mike Lair, R-Chillicothe, earlier this month. In it, Holcer said the only way to break through a generational welfare cycle is to provide children with a proper education.

“Right now, welfare recipients are not expected to be productive citizens in society,” Holcer said in the email. “Why would a welfare recipient want to work if they receive money for doing nothing? Make it the welfare recipients job to make sure their children attend school a certain percentage of the time, then they get their welfare check.”

Holcer could not be reached for comment on his letter Thursday.

Cookson’s 25-word bill text has not yet reached a House committee, though he said he plans to bring it up in the House Education Committee, which he chairs.

“I would not anticipate this getting out of this side of the chamber, much less going to the Senate,” Cookson said. “If I did have a hearing on it it would just be a little cleanup language, but it does start a conversation.”

The Label

Some critics have dubbed Cookson’s legislation the “Don’t Get Sick” bill, saying the unspecific bill language could pose a problem for students who contract illnesses that put them out of school for weeks at a time, like mononucleosis. It’s familiar territory for Cookson.

Last year, Cookson sponsored a bill last year that would have banned schools from discussing sexual orientation when not related to human reproduction. Opponents coined it as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

“Once again I question the people tagging any of my legislation with these catchy little demeaning captions or titles, which is not at all what its about,” Cookson said.

Cookson said his bill doesn’t specify exceptions for long term illnesses because it doesn’t need to.

“As a former educator, if you have doctors care or you’re under a long-term illness you can be placed on homebound which does not affect your attendance,” Cookson, a former superintendent, said. “There’s also interaction between the home and the school that comes into play.”

Cookson said opponents will try and pick away at his legislation to ignore the broad reform that could come about if the real message is heard.

“I don’t want anyone to get sick but I also understand that if we are going to continue to live then we must move forward and we must try to do better for ourselves.” Cookson said. “The best way to provide people that are of meager means or on public assistance to advance themselves has always been through education.”

Cookson said he thinks his bill should have a label though.

“I would label it ‘Breaking the Poverty Cycle’ bill,” Cookson said. “By making sure that students are educated so that is there best ticket out of poverty into a better life.”

The Conversation

Democrats and advocates for education and the poor said the bill would do little to solve the problems with school attendance.

Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis County, one of the most outspoken critics of Cookson’s bill, said she didn’t think it was well thought out.

Otto Fajen, a lobbyist for the Missouri National Education Association, said while he couldn’t take a formal position on the bill, it could pose a problem by labeling children by their parent’s economic status.

“Anytime you’d be targeting particular kids based on factors that aren’t even relevant to their particular characteristics, or targeting kids based on their family’s financial situation, we would have a problem with that,” Fajen said.

Executive Director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare Jeanette Oxford said it could cause a potential rift between parents and their children.

“It could create a situation where the children demand part of the money or say they won’t go to school,” said Oxford, a former state representative.

But Cookson said that conflicts with the message he’s heard from lobbyists all session trying to find ways to increase school attendance across the state.

He said in committee hearings just last week at least one education group decried “lazy parents” who should be held accountable for bringing their children to school.

Cookson confronted a group of education lobbyists, including Fajen, at the state Capitol Thursday where he asked them why they would reverse their position by not supporting his bill.

None of them had taken a formal position against his bill at that time, but when asked whether any of the testimony from last week’s hearing included anything about welfare recipients specifically, Cookson said no.

“They said ‘lazy parents,'” Cookson said. “I’m not singling out welfare parents except for this bill here.”

The Big Picture

Oxford said Cookson’s bill follows a similar trend of legislation this year that she said seeks to classify public assistance in a negative light.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, recently passed from the House to the Senate, that would heighten the standards for those receiving public benefits. If passed it would cut Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits for recipients who are found to have gambled at a casino and, similar to Cookson’s bill, require all recipients to provide proof that those enrolled in school are attending it regularly.

“This is a program where there is incredible bias,” Oxford said. “I think people believe a lot of things about welfare that aren’t true. Like that somehow the benefits are so generous that folks just sit around with their government handouts without working.”

Oxford said a family of three gets about $292 per month in TANF funds.

Newman said using those funds as a bargaining chip for a child’s education isn’t the right method of increasing school attendance.

“It’s a common theme that we’re seeing in legislation not just this year but for awhile,” Newman said. “It does more towards penalizing families than it does in getting kids to school.”

Cookson said he hopes to hear discussion on the bill as he tries to put it before a committee prior to session ending on May 17.

“I am just wanting to make sure that everyone would, to the extent that we could possible, do this [raise attendance rates],” Cookson said. “That everyone would take the responsibility as a parent as seriously as they need to to provide the opportunities for their children that they will have a better life than they themselves, the parent, has.”

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