In an eyebrow raising article, liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof offered a startling concession: “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. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.”
Writing from Jackson, Kentucky, Mr. Kristof reported that numerous poor parents in Appalachian hill country are yanking their kids out of literacy classes in order to bag a $689 monthly Supplemental Security Income (S.S.I.) check per kid. The checks continue until the child reaches 18 years of age.
“The kids get taken out of the program because the parents are going to lose the check,” said Billie Oaks, who runs a literacy program here in Breathitt County, a poor part of Kentucky. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Cornell University Economics Professor Richard V. Burkhauser says parents are inducing illiteracy to keep the taxpayer-funded welfare checks rolling in. “One of the ways you get on this program is having problems in school. If you do better in school, you threaten the income of the parents. It’s a terrible incentive,” said Professor Burkhauser.
Such government dependency, says local school district official Melanie Stevens, traps poor children and families in a cycle of taxpayer-funded dependency that replaces dreams with welfare checks: “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.”
Indeed, the S.S.I. welfare program has morphed into a way of life for many, writes Kristof:
About four decades ago, most of the children S.S.I. covered had severe physical handicaps or mental retardation that made it difficult for parents to hold jobs — about 1 percent of all poor children. But now 55 percent of the disabilities it covers are fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation, where the diagnosis is less clear-cut. More than 1.2 million children across America — a full 8 percent of all low-income children — are now enrolled in S.S.I. as disabled, at an annual cost of more than $9 billion.
That is a burden on taxpayers, of course, but it can be even worse for children whose families have a huge stake in their failing in school. Those kids may never recover: a 2009 study found that nearly two-thirds of these children make the transition at age 18 into S.S.I. for the adult disabled. 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.
Conservatives have long advocated marriage as the best anti-poverty program going. The logic is simple: two paychecks are twice as much as one.
Radical feminists, however, have eschewed such economic logic, suggesting that the two-parent model is patriarchal and outmoded. As the former head of the National Organization for Women (NOW) Kim Gandy put it, “Marrying women off to get them out of poverty is not only backward, it is insulting to women.”
But the New York Times’ Kristof appears to have found religion on the economic and developmental virtues of marriage as well: “A growing body of careful research suggests that the most effective strategy is to work early on children and education, and to try to encourage and sustain marriage,” Kristof writes.
The New York Times is by no means changing its ideological stripes. But Mr. Kristof deserves a hat tip for acknowledging what conservatives have known for decades: marriage reduces poverty, and boundless welfare vaporizes human flourishing.