Punishing the poor: Michigan adopts law to take away families' food assistance if kids miss school
A child and parent embrace through prison bars (Shutterstock)

The Republican governor of Michigan signed a law this week that makes families of students who miss school ineligible for government benefits designed to combat child poverty and hunger.

On Thursday, Governor Rick Snyder inked his support for the "Parental Responsibility Act," which cuts off Family Independence Program assistance for relatives of children in Michigan caught being absent without proper documentation.

"To break the cycle of poverty, kids need an education to position them for future success. We have to do everything we can to see that they are regularly attending school," Snyder says of the legislation on his website.

Michigan League for Public Policy President Gilda Jacobs tells MLive that nearly three out of four cash assistance recipients are children, with an average age of seven. "With more than half a million Michigan children living in poverty," Jacobs says, "and the needs of too many families unmet, our state should be doing everything possible to lift them up, not push them deeper into economic crisis."

Under Michigan's new law -- which codifies more formally a policy the state's Department of Health and Human Services adopted in 2012 -- families that receive food subsidies will have their benefits docked if a child misses school. Family members may still continue to use roads, accept military salaries, or otherwise benefit from state tax expenditures -- as long as said benefits are not specifically targeted at poor people. If a family has multiple children and only one child is deemed "truant" by the state, all of the kids can go hungry or find other ways to pay for food.

As written, the law prescribes no punishment for parents of truants who do not receive government benefits for low-income families.

A slew of local truancy laws that have popped up around the country over the last several years have put thousands of parents behind bars, forcefully removed thousands of children from their homes, and placed tens of thousands of kids on juvenile probation.

The Center for Public Integrity describes how, even in states where truancy isn't officially a crime (as it hasn't been in Michigan -- until now), children are still going to jail for missing school, and without access to legal counsel, when judges find them guilty of what's called a "status offense."

A chorus of family rights advocates challenge the rationale behind truancy laws. The UCLA Law Review argues Americans can reduce school absences by enacting policy to fight poverty, a key factor in truancy rates. Making poor families poorer because a child misses school, according to the journal, doesn't make people better off, and also contributes to the problem of mass incarceration.

"The storyline that truancy leads to low academic achievement, dropouts, and incarceration," the paper says, "does not acknowledge how truancy law enforcement actually exacerbates the school to prison pipeline. Instead, the prevailing frame is a fear tactic, which promotes the idea that the public should be afraid of truant students because they will end up becoming criminals. Thus, the framing extends to: Law enforcement must crack down on these future criminals now, while they are young, to stop their criminal inclinations. Unfortunately, this storyline does not explain how law enforcement in fact already criminalizes these children and sends them well on their way down the school to prison pipeline."

In an editorial, the Battle Creek Enquirer says it would like to see the Michigan legislature focus its child-related policies on poverty alleviation, too.

"We see far too little coming from our Legislature to address [economic] barriers," the paper writes. Snyder's recently signed legislation "[will] only aggravate those conditions."

"We also believe that ensuring children receive a quality education is a vital public interest, but [the Parent Responsibility Act] is no way to accomplish that," the Battle Creek Enquirer concludes.