Between August and December of this school year, Shetaya Griggs’ 11-year-old daughter missed more than 50 days of school, a rate of chronic absenteeism that troubled school officials.
It also left Griggs worried that she could lose the public assistance she relies on to feed her family.
Each year, under state law, Michigan yanks a cash benefit from hundreds of poor families because their children don’t attend school regularly enough. Thousands more families who apply for the benefit are rejected because of their attendance records.
The state has enforced this policy for at least a decade — even though family poverty is a leading contributor to student absenteeism, and some research has found that punitive approaches to chronic absenteeism don’t work.
Indeed, reducing income for poor families may actually worsen attendance, with serious consequences for students. Students who are considered chronically absent — meaning they miss at least 10% of school days — are more likely to struggle academically and drop out.
“If the goal is to improve a child’s likelihood of attendance, then withholding financial support from their struggling household is the perfect way to ensure you fail at it,” said Jayesh Patel, president of Street Democracy, a nonprofit legal services agency that works with families.
To parents like Griggs, such policies ignore the often complicated set of challenges that families like hers face, and they assume parents whose children are chronically absent don’t care about their children’s education or future.
“I don’t want to lose that, because my kids need it,” said Griggs, who is a single mother of two children and who has health issues that have been a significant barrier to getting her sixth-grader to school every day.
About this series
Chalkbeat Detroit is investing reporting resources into covering the impact frequent absences are having on students, their families, and schools. High rates of chronic absenteeism are destroying efforts to turn around schools and recover from the pandemic. And they’re further exacerbating inequities that affect the most vulnerable children in Michigan.
You can read past stories here.
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Griggs said most of the days her daughter Haydin has missed have been because her own chronic health problems made it difficult to walk her daughter to Gompers Elementary-Middle School, and because she feared letting Haydin walk to school on her own in their tough Brightmoor neighborhood. Griggs doesn’t have a car, is unable to work, and doesn’t have a strong support system to help. So when her asthma and painful eczema, which flares up frequently, are a problem, her daughter doesn’t go to school.
Griggs knows she must do better, and so far she has. The school’s parent coordinator convinced her to volunteer at the school daily. So on most days now, you will find Griggs in the parent room at the school, and Haydin in class. But she has a message for officials who want to punish parents like her.
“They don’t understand,” Griggs said. “They’re not in the homes with these families. They don’t get the challenges. I wish they would show up at some of our parent meetings so they can understand.”
Michigan strategy relies on penalties, courts and caseworkers
Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, said her organization hasn’t studied whether other states have such a law. But she is concerned that punitive measures are increasingly being used as a way to crack down on absenteeism.
“There’s a really good study from South Carolina, where they looked at if you take kids and put them into probation, and you use legal strategies, do you get a better outcome? And they found that they got worse attendance,” Chang said.
What school and community officials need to focus on, Chang said, is strategies that address the reasons why students are missing school.
In Michigan, the penalty is one of the few state-level rules intended to reduce absenteeism, which has long been a challenge in Detroit and spiked to alarming new highs in the 2021-22 school year. Michigan law also allows for chronically absent children and their parents to face court charges. Most attendance initiatives, though, are left to school districts, which have hired attendance agents, visited students’ homes, and worked to connect families with resources to deal with homelessness, medical problems, and other issues that can drive absenteeism.
State officials contacted by Chalkbeat said they could not provide evidence that the penalty leads to improved attendance. They pointed to other measures they’re taking to help kids get to school.
“Because MDHHS believes access to public assistance is important to low-income families, the department works with families that have truancy issues to address them so that the young people can get a good education and the family can receive cash assistance to meet their basic needs,” said Bob Wheaton, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the benefit.
The department has placed 209 caseworkers in 277 schools to help families address barriers to attendance, such as transportation, child care, and health care. Last year, 546,000 students in Michigan were chronically absent across the state’s more than 3,000 public schools.
Law targets people with very low incomes
The school attendance requirement in the benefit program was written into state law by the Republican-led Legislature in 2015, though officials had been following the policy for years beforehand.
The law “preys on economically disadvantaged people by reducing access to financial assistance,” said Rep. Amos O’Neal, D-Saginaw. “The funds taken from these families could be used to help them. Education is important, but I just think that taking away the needed funds required by a family to get their kids to school isn’t the way to do it.”
The new Democratic majority hasn’t taken steps to reverse the law, but a spokesperson for House Speaker Joe Tate said his party has an interest in taking “a closer look at the impact of this statute.” A spokesperson for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did not respond to a request for comment.
What is the Family Independence Program?
The Family Independence Program is the cash benefit portion of Michigan’s federally funded antipoverty program, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Federal funding for TANF has lost 47% of its value to inflation since 1997, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank based in Washington.
Michigan spends less on cash assistance to families than 37 other states. In 2021, Michigan spent $1.2 billion overall on TANF, but just 8% of that went to cash assistance.
The cash benefit in question, known as the Family Independence Program, maxes out at $492 per month for a family of three, and is accompanied by work and reporting requirements. The amount hasn’t increased since the late 1990s, despite inflation that has accelerated in recent years.
Only families with extremely low incomes — roughly $7,000 per year for a family of three — qualify for the benefit, and the benefit shrinks if their incomes rise.
Most of the families who lost benefits because of student truancy were in Wayne County. Wayne is both the state’s most populous county and home to Detroit, which researchers say is a “uniquely challenging” city for school attendance given its patchy transportation system, high poverty levels, widespread housing instability, and high rates of chronic illness.
State data show a steady stream of cash-strapped families missing out on a resource that might have helped with rent or car payments.
- 327 16- and 17-year-olds were kicked out of the program during the 2022 fiscal year, according to MDHHS.
- 141 entire families lost their benefit because younger children were attending irregularly.
- 2,585 families applied for the benefit but were denied because of their attendance records.
- 37 pregnant teens lost out on the benefit because of low attendance.
Those figures are slightly higher than the comparable numbers reported in 2013, when nonpartisan analysts looked at proposals to turn the policy into law.
The state doesn’t define how many missed days constitute truancy, so decisions about cutting benefits are left to the discretion of attendance agents and caseworkers.
People who are kicked out of the program or denied benefits can reapply if the student makes it to class every school day during a 21-day period. The state doesn’t know how many actually reapply.
Some officials stress the need for accountability
Most efforts to reduce absenteeism focus on eliminating barriers to attendance and drawing attention to the costs of absenteeism. Some education leaders believe that the strategies should include punitive measures for families whose students miss too much school.
In Detroit, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he’s not sure withholding public assistance is the solution.
“That can certainly exacerbate the family’s difficult situation and the child’s future,” Vitti told Chalkbeat in an email.
However, he does believe stronger accountability and intervention are needed, something he expressed to school board members during an April 24 meeting.
“At the PreK-8 grade level, students can miss an unlimited amount of school and still move to the next grade level,” Vitti told Chalkbeat. “As a District, we need to address this. It’s not sending the right message to our teachers and principals; our families; the community; and most importantly, to our students. As a Superintendent and School Board team we need to consider what are the right consequences, after documented intervention and outreach, for missing a lot of school.”
Mark Larson, an attendance agent in Kent County, which contains Grand Rapids, said the threat of penalties is a valuable deterrent.
“When you’re counseling a family and trying to work toward family stability, I think it’s a useful tool, especially if it’s not used as a club but as a nudge,” he said.
But for the families who actually lose this benefit — and with it a substantial part of their already small incomes — the result may be destabilizing, said Christine Bell, executive director of Urban Neighborhood Initiatives, a nonprofit that works with families in southwest Detroit.
“Chronic absenteeism is a symptom of poverty, so it makes zero sense that it would take away that you would take away something that is so necessary to be able to even function,” she said.
In Detroit, Griggs is worried about the potential loss of benefits, but she’s even more worried about the possibility of jail time if her daughter isn’t in school. And there’s an even bigger concern: that the lost time in school may put her daughter behind academically.
“I want her to have a future,” Griggs said.
Koby Levin covered K-12 schools and early childhood education for Chalkbeat Detroit. Reach the team at email@example.com.