Starting last fall, families who rely on welfare were faced with a new kind of truancy officer: the welfare police. Under the new “Learnfare” program, kids who skipped school five times in a quarter saw mom’s benefit check docked by $60. A pet project of Governor George Pataki, this pilot anti-truancy program was expanded to every elementary school in New York State last year, affecting about 250,000 kids.
Now, the legislature has effectively pulled the plug on Learnfare by allowing it to expire last week. The Republican-dominated state Senate plotted to extend the program until 2005, but abandoned the effort, in part because powerful Bronx Assemblyman Roberto Ramirez resolutely opposed it.
Studies in other states showed not only that Learnfare was ineffective at reducing truancy, but that it was an expensive administrative headache, said Mark Dunlea of Hunger Action Network of New York, a welfare and poverty advocacy group. School superintendents criticized the program as misdirected and ineffective. In addition, said Dunlea, “it discriminates against the most vulnerable kids.”
Pataki may still try to revive the program in future legislative sessions. But the public appeal of punitive welfare reform programs has dwindled, pointed out Dunlea. Plus, the political momentum is simply not as strong, he added: “Once a program is dead, it’s somewhat difficult to resuscitate.”