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The Southern State Fast Becoming Ayn Rand's Vision of Paradise

Tennessee lawmakers have elevated hatred for government and disgust for poor people to an art form.
 
 
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The following article is part of AlterNet's ongoing series on poverty, Hard Times, USA. 

If you're worried about where America is heading, look no further than Tennessee. Its lush mountains and verdant rolling countryside belie a mean-spirited public policy that only makes sense if you believe deeply in the anti-collectivist, anti-altruist philosophy of Ayn Rand. It's what you get when you combine hatred for government with disgust for poor people.

Tennessee starves what little government it has, ranking dead last in per capita tax revenue. To fund its minimalist public sector, it makes sure that low-income residents pay as much as possible through heavily regressive sales taxes, which rank 10th highest among all states as a percent of total tax revenues. (For more detailed data see  here.)

As you would expect, this translates into hard times for its public school systems, which rank 48th in school revenues per student and 45th in teacher salaries. The failure to invest in education also corresponds with poverty: the state has the 40th worst poverty rate (15%) and the 13th highest state  percentage of poor children (26%). 

Employment opportunities also are extremely poor for the poor. Only 25% have full-time jobs, 45% are employed part-time, and a whopping 30% have no jobs at all. 

So what do you do with all those low-income folks who don't have decent jobs? You put a good number of them in jail. In fact, only Louisiana, Georgia and New Mexico have  higher jail incarceration rates.

From the perspective of Tennessee legislators, it's all about providing the proper incentives to motivate the poor. For starters, you make sure that no one could possible live on welfare payments (TANF: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). Although President Clinton's welfare reform program curtailed how long a family can receive welfare (60 months) and dramatically increased the work requirements, Tennessee set the  maximum family welfare payment at only $185 per month. (That's how much a top hedge fund manager makes in under one second.) As a result, the Volunteer State ranks 49th in TANF, just above Mississippi ($170). 

Kick 'em when they're down or tough love?

In the Randian universe, it's not enough to starve public education and the poor. You also must blame the poor both for their poverty and for the crumbling educational system. If a poor child is failing it must be the fault of low-income parents. So how do you drive the point home? You take away their welfare checks if their kids don't do well in school, which is precisely what the Tennessee House and Senate are about to do. The KnoxvilleNews.com reports:

The bill is sponsored by  Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Vance  Dennis, R-Savannah. It calls for a 30 percent reduction in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to parents whose children are not making satisfactory progress in school.

More amazing still, the bill originally applied to all children of TANF parents, even if they were severely disabled. Realizing that they had gone too far, the bill was amended so that, "it would not apply when a child has a handicap or learning disability or when the parent takes steps to try improving the youngster’s school performance — such as signing up for a parenting class, arranging a tutoring program or attending a parent-teacher conference."  (Imagine the uproar if those provision were applied to upper-income parents, assuming any still use the public school system.)

Dennis told the House Health Subcommittee the measure now only applies to “parents who do nothing.” He described the measure as “a carrot and stick approach.”

 
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