Docking the Poor for Cutting Class

POVERTY tends to be self-perpetuating - especially where, as in America's inner cities, poverty is so pervasive and longstanding that it becomes a culture and not just an economic condition. Illiteracy, lack of skills, drug and alcohol abuse, and the lure of the ``street'' pass their bitter legacy from one generation to the next. Hence the need to break the cycle of poverty and welfare dependency. Education is the principal means of escape from poverty's downward spiral. So Wisconsin has instituted a program to keep poor children in school. Under Learnfare, welfare payments to poor families are reduced if teenage children repeatedly skip school without an excuse. Other states, including Massachusetts, are considering similar programs.

Though worthy in its intent, Learnfare is troubling. Other states should go slow in cloning the program.

Is it fair to penalize a student's mother and siblings - especially some of the neediest of our people - for that student's conduct? That's hard to answer. After all, responsibility for a child's development and a degree of accountability for his acts are inherent in parenthood. Still, we have misgivings over the program's equity.

The larger doubts about Learnfare, though, are practical ones. The program is based on two assumptions that are open to challenge. First, it assumes that poor parents can fully control the behavior of their 13-to-19-year-old children. Second, it assumes that poor kids are benefited simply by holding down a school desk, regardless of their interest, motivation, or ability to do the assigned work.

Wisconsin concedes that Learnfare was rather hastily implemented, and that the state has few data on truant students: their personal and family profiles, their educational capabilities and needs. In the absence of such information, one must ask if the state truly has the interests of truants in mind, or, rather, if the program simply reflects taxpayers' frustration and resentment toward welfare recipients.

To pass muster, a program like Learnfare must be based on extensive research into the causes and patterns of truancy, and it should be coupled with efforts to get children who are turned off by or terrified of school into counseling, remedial, or work/study programs that can make school relevant to their troubled lives. Wisconsin's attempts in that regard are inadequate.

There's nothing wrong with the growing trend to view welfare as part of a ``social contract,'' whereby in return for government assistance the poor must undertake certain work or educational obligations. But Learnfare strikes us as a blunderbuss that is unduly punitive and is unlikely to ameliorate the underlying causes of truancy.

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