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The elephant in the room … a look at poverty in Johnson County

By David Walter
What is ignored among polite company in our county is the unfortunate abundance of poverty. It is Johnson County’s elephant in the room, or a metaphorical idiom which describes an obvious fact that goes unaddressed or avoided. It is however an issue that should not be ignored, so here are the unadulterated facts for Johnson County.
The county’s statistics are shocking, to be conservative at best. According to the Census Bureau, 23.4 percent of Johnson County lives under the poverty line and 24.4 percent of the county receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, the program that provides food stamps. According to Tennessee’s Department of Human Services, 160 households in the county receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits. This replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, and was part of the 1996 welfare reform, also known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.
While the number of recipients of TANF is a relatively small percentage of the county, this would be arguably much higher if not for the five-year lifetime limit for recipients. The majority of TANF benefits are designated for single mothers with children. For this demographic in Johnson County, 59.6 percent with children under age 18 live under the poverty line. For single mothers with children under age five only, the statistic is at 100 percent. To compound these statistics, 39 percent of people over age 25 do not have a high school diploma or its equivalency, and twelve percent have an education that does not surpass the ninth grade. There is a direct correlation between poverty and educational obtainment.
One of the bipartisan themes of welfare reform in 1996 was the promotion of parental responsibility. Recently, a piece of state legislation was proposed by Tennessee State Sen. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) known as Education to End Poverty, but has been more infamously deemed by the national media as the “Starve Our Children Bill.”
The bill, which failed under pressure from Governor Bill Haslam and both parties in the state senate, aimed to reduce TANF benefits by 30 percent for those recipients whose children did not meet satisfactory academic progress. Exceptions were made for children with IEPs (Individualized EducationProgram) and those in special education. Critics across Tennessee and in the national media have been adamant that this bill would essentially punish children and retroactively create a far worse situation. Another concern is that to counteract the proposed legislation, teachers would be pressured into giving students better grades than deserved, or that children would be unnecessarily placed on IEPs.
The benefits under TANF are currently set near a maximum payment of $180 a month; cutting 30 percent under this legislation would have been extremely detrimental for those needy families. Johnson County’s state representative, Timothy Hill, voted for this bill in the Tennessee House Health Committee.
Hill was asked about his vote during the most recent legislative breakfast held at the Johnson County Health Department on May 3rd. Hill noted that he voted against the original legislation in the house subcommittee. “The original legislation, I didn’t like it,” said Hill. “The point of the legislation, as it was before me in the full Health Committee, was to try to find an avenue to increase parental involvement, to give the parents an opportunity to avoid that reduction. The initial version of the legislation didn’t really do that. It was more punitive in nature.”
The changes between the original legislation and what was voted on in the full Health Committee included actions that parents could take to restore benefits. This was the choice between participation in two or more parent-teacher conferences, eight hours of parenting classes, affected children completing an eight-hour tutoring program or their enrollment in summer school if the benefits were reduced before summer break. Critics of the legislation believe that since the bill offered no assistance for these provisions, parent implementation on reduced TANF benefits would be even more difficult. Those in opposition to the legislation also believe that those who receive TANF benefits are already stretched thin on their limited benefits; the time and money it would take to attend these meetings or enroll children in summer school would further compound the problem.
A recent Tomahawk poll questioned individuals in the community on whether or not benefits should be connected to the children of families receiving TANF. Thirty-nine percent of people agreed with the statement that there needs to be some accountability but it doesn’t need to be tied to children. Thirty-six percent of respondents agreed with the response of, “What? That is appalling! Absolutely not!” Twenty percent agreed that if it makes parents accountable, then we should have the legislation. Five percent responded that there was no easy answer to the issue.
Feedback from the community was notably in opposition of Hill’s support of the bill. Nearly all stated that parental responsibility is important, but there has to be a different method to accomplish it. A variety of citizens across the county gave their feedback to the news of the proposed bill. “It’s not the kids’ fault,” said Mary from Doe Valley. “The men at the prison get better care than some of the kids in the county.”
The overwhelming response was not just from everyday members of the community. Officials and county leaders responded similarly. Some commented on the connection between children’s academics and TANF benefits. “I still don’t believe the two should be connected. We need to work on issues like truancy, not the funds for basic necessities,” said a representative from the Johnson County Head Start Program. “What politicians understand is that they might be on TANF, but they do not understand what people are going through.”
“You can’t hold children responsible for the actions of their parents. If the money is cut, then the children are the ones who suffer,” said another source from one of the larger community organizations in the county. “I don’t see how cutting it will force or prompt the parent who is unable or unwilling to work to educate their children.”
There is rampant poverty in the county. This is the unfortunate truth. Facing this as a community, taking the time to help educate our students at home, personal and parental responsibility, and promoting economic growth are some suggested ways to go about this. Until then, we are in a vicious cycle.