"This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency," Kristof writes. "Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments. Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage . . . Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it’s best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month."
Kristof does not document how many such cases he found in Appalachia, nor does he cite military enlistment data. His headline, "Profiting from a child's illiteracy," does not take into account the circumstances of individual families. But he quotes the woman who runs the literacy program and a local school official, who says, "The greatest challenge we face as educators is how to break that dependency on government. In second grade, they have a dream. In seventh grade, they have a plan."
In a 2009 piece for the Times, University of Richmond political science professor Jennifer Erkulwater noted, "Between 1984 and 1990, Congress loosened SSI requirements, especially for children with mental disabilities. It also said it wouldn't cut off recipients it thought weren't disabled anymore unless it could prove this. As a result, it should come as no surprise that, compared to two decades ago, it is much easier today for younger adults and children ... to receive disability benefits and to stay on the disability rolls longer once found eligible."
Because of those loosened rules, 55 percent of disabilities covered by SSI are "fuzzier intellectual disabilities," Kristof writes. He reports that 1.2 million low-income children, 8 percent of the total, are on SSI. It's a $9 billion annual burden for taxpayers, he writes, but "It can be even worse for children whose families have a huge stake in their failing school." He cites a 2009 study that found two-thirds of SSI kids who turn 18 transfer into the adult program: "They may never hold a job in their entire lives and are condemned to a life of poverty on the dole — and that’s the outcome of a program intended to fight poverty."
Kristof acknowledges that he's no expert on poverty, and says fighting it is complex, "But for me, a tentative lesson from the field is that while we need safety nets, the focus should be instead on creating opportunity, and, still more difficult, on creating an environment that leads people to seize opportunities." (Read more)
UPDATE, Jan. 29, 2013: New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan criticizes Kristoff for not reporting the issue of poverty and federal assistance programs more rigorously. She writes in her column, "The Public Editor's Journal," that Kristof "does plenty of shoe-leather reporting for his columns," and that he travels all over the world and talks to many people about the issues he addresses. But this time, "he did not talk to the primary sources, the parents of poor and developmentally disabled children," Sullivan writes. "Given the provocative nature of his opening statement and its importance in setting up the column's thesis, it should have been completely solid." After reading all the points, counterpoints, objections and defenses in relations to Kristof's column, she writes: "I believe that some of the column's assertions were based on too little direct evidence or used statistical information that is, at the very least, open to interpretation."