Shame on you, Nicholas Kristoff

12 Dec 2012 03:54 pm
Posted by: Donna

Sunday’s Kristoff New York Times op-ed was yet another iteration of blaming single mothers for everything wrong with society, but it was especially disheartening coming from him, as he is a liberal and a self-proclaimed feminist. Here’s how he starts his piece:

THIS is what poverty sometimes looks like in America: parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability.

Many people in hillside mobile homes here are poor and desperate, and a $698 monthly check per child from the Supplemental Security Income program goes a long way — and those checks continue until the child turns 18.

“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.”

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.

Wow. This is what we call an urban legend. Or in this case, a rural legend. Yeah, I know, everyone has a next door neighbor’s uncle’s chiropractor’s nephew who is faking a disability to get a Social Security check and food stamps. Which means that fraud in public assistance is so rampant that most of it should be ended. I know the drill. It’s just that I expect it from random fools at barbecues or in internet comment sections, not from a respected liberal columnist at one of the world’s leading newspapers. I sincerely hope Ms. Oak’s employers or someone asks her some questions about how she came to know for a fact that many of the poor parents in her community are deliberately keeping their kids illiterate so as to keep getting a government check. Community Legal Services issued a press release putting a fact-based smackdown on this particular urban/rural legend:

Correcting the Record: The Facts about SSI for Children with Disabilities

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 10, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA – Nicholas Kristof’s December 7 op-ed, “Profiting from a Child’s Illiteracy” paints a false choice between investing in early education and supporting families with children with disabilities. In truth, both are necessary to ensure economic opportunity for vulnerable children and families. It is ironic that Kristof’s column is being praised by some as a “brave” bipartisan call to arms. Let’s step back and see this proposal for what it is: a misguided recommendation to take vital resources away from the most vulnerable population in this country – children with disabilities.
Kristof’s spurious allegation that some low-income Kentucky families are pulling their children out of literacy programs in hopes that they’ll qualify for SSI amounts to the worst kind of demonization of the poor. It also fundamentally misunderstands the SSI program. Instead of spinning myths about a vital program, let’s get the facts straight.

Illiteracy in and of itself is not a basis for SSI eligibility. A child must have a medically documented impairment that results in “marked and severe functional limitations” in order to qualify for benefits. Inability to read at grade level may be an indicator of a learning disorder or other mental impairment, but on its own is not sufficient to qualify for SSI. Likewise, doing well in school doesn’t mean a child will lose benefits. Academic performance is just one evidentiary factor considered in evaluating a child’s eligibility for SSI…

It goes on from there. Definitely read the whole thing.

Amanda Marcotte eviscerates Kristoff’s scolding of poor single moms in this great piece for Prospect that you should also read in its entirety:

Let’s be clear: No one is denying that kids do better if they are raised by loving couples who can share resources like time and money. But to state this is about as useful as stating that kids do better with more resources, period. To justify obsessing over non-married-ness—at the expense of, say, asking why a single income isn’t enough to be middle class, as it was for huge percentages of the population in the 1950s—requires believing that single women need a bit more scolding, or for the liberals, minor policy tweaks to get married and stay married.

There’s no reason to think that this is true, however. A study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family over the summer showed that lower-income women value marriage more than women of higher incomes. Indeed, one of the researchers pointed out that holding traditional values often lays the groundwork for becoming a single mother:

“Why are low-income women postponing marriage but having babies?” Karney asked. “Because they don’t want to get divorced. They think if they marry their current partner, they are likely to get divorced — and couples that have financial strain are much more likely to have marital difficulties. It’s like these women have been reading the scientific journals about marriage; their intuition is absolutely correct.”

Falling into a lower tax bracket doesn’t make someone immune to wanting marriages to be happy and based on passion, nor should it. But Kristof conjures up an image of lower-income women making their choices for more quotidian reasons with his phrase “marrying that hard-working guy she likes,” as if he were describing a quasi-arranged medieval marriage made to merge the agricultural interests of serfs. For a man who has spent much of his career fighting against sex trafficking, it’s a weird thing to suddenly back a transactional model of marriage.

Yeah, and it’s really alarming to see prominent liberals embracing the social conservative “let them eat marriage” solution to poverty. Where are all these marriageable men earning enough in rural Kentucky and other economically depressed communities? I wonder if these pundits – both conservative and liberal – ever consider how spectacularly cruel and callous they are being with this pointless moralizing drivel. Not only do poor women value marriage as much or more than other women but all women are socialized pretty much from birth to value ourselves primarily by our ability to attract a man. So a lot of those poor single moms (not saying all by any means, but a lot) probably already feel lousy enough for not having a man in their lives and a father-figure for their kids. Popular culture certainly reinforces the desirability of being in a happy relationship (with a man, natch, since all women are assumed to be straight) at every turn and how women who aren’t are broken and deeply lonely. In light of that, it takes a special kind of jerkwaffle to then tell these women that they are the cause of child poverty due to their selfish refusal to just settle down with the first good provider who comes along.


  1. Comment by Elizabeth on December 12, 2012 4:34 pm

    My sister did settle down with one of those “good providers” and what happened was that he took off in the middle of the night with the three grand she had saved up to pay for rent and schooling.

    Left her with nothing-not even an explanation why. They both were working, they were in a seemingly stable relationship and he was a good father to her son. But BAM gone in the night.

    So what does Kristof propose someone like my sister do? She did everything he said single mothers, those scourges of the earth apparently, should do and she still wound up being a single mom again.

    Jackass he be.

  2. Comment by Mike Slater on December 12, 2012 7:22 pm

    The best thing for a child is to be raised by a mother and a father.

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