This Week in Poverty: Kristof’s Swing and Miss

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.

In a somewhat bizarre op-ed last week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof acknowledged, “I’m no expert on domestic poverty,” and then seemingly set out to prove it.

Welfare Cuts

Chrissy Fairbanks poses with her daughters Angela, 11, and Alexus, 12, at their home, in Keene, N.H. Chrissy Fairbanks has been legally blind since she was 9, and the Fairbanks family receives Supplemental Security Income for the disabled. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

He drew a dangerous and brazen, anecdotally based conclusion that the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, which benefits one of the most vulnerable populations in the country — low-income children with disabilities and their parents — must be cut and those resources diverted to early education initiatives in order to help children escape poverty. The thrust of Kristof’s argument is based on a secondhand account of parents in Appalachian Kentucky who allegedly pulled their children out of a literacy program in order to continue receiving disability benefits.

Let me acknowledge that I, too, am no expert. I depend on experts and researchers, advocates and academics, and low-income people who know their experiences better than anyone, to write this column. As a result, I rarely comment on the writing of others.

But in this case, we are talking about a columnist who has a profound influence on the poverty debate. In fact, sources say that the op-ed is now being endorsed by a powerful children’s advocate with an impressive progressive pedigree who is distributing it to Congressional Democratic offices. Also, Kristof showed more than a little chutzpah when he took issue with those who were critical of his column in a Sunday night tweet: “My column today turns tables, irritating many liberals and RT’d by conservatives.… A bit sad. 实事求是!” In a second tweet he translated the Chinese phrase: “‘Seek truth from facts.’ Evidence, not ideology!”

To dismiss those who would question his conclusions as reacting out of ideology, rather than acting on their own expertise or experiences, calls for a clear and thorough response. Three letters in last Thursday’s Times offer a glimpse of how Kristof’s column falls short.

Georgetown University Law Professor Peter Edelman — who has dedicated nearly fifty years to the fight against poverty, including a poverty tour in Appalachia with Senator Robert Kennedy — writes, “The process for getting SSI is onerous. Medical professionals must submit evidence of an impairment that results in ‘marked and severe functional limitations’…. Illiteracy on its own is not sufficient to qualify, and doing well in school doesn’t mean a child will lose benefits.… We need to end child poverty. Slashing a program that is making a difference for disabled children will only make matters worse.”

James Perrin, the president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics, also writes, “Poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well-being.” He points out that as the number of children living in poverty has grown — now up to 16.1 million, or 22 percent of all children — the percentage receiving SSI “has remained constant, at about 7.5 percent.” He describes the $615 average monthly benefit as “a lifeline for low-income families caring for children with severe physical or mental disabilities.” Perrin argues that costs associated with care for these children can be “staggering” and force parents to choose between gainful employment and taking care of their children. Finally, he takes on what Kristof describes as “the fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation” that qualify children to receive SSI. “These are in fact mental disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism,” Perrin explains. “Their diagnosis is possible because of a markedly improved understanding of children’s mental health, not the exploitation of the program best suited to care for children with these and other conditions.”

Here are some facts on SSI for Mr. Kristof and those who might be influenced by his article:

  • As of October 2012, over 8 million people collected SSI benefits, including 1.3 million low-income children under 18.
  • SSI benefit rolls have grown only slightly faster than the population — about 1.6 percent of all children in the U.S. receive it. The modest growth is explained by the rising rate of child poverty and advances in early diagnosis of medical and psychiatric conditions.
  • Fewer than 1 in 4 children with disabilities received SSI as of August 2012 — due to SSI’s means-test and strict disability standard.
  • A child’s impairments must match a list of disabling conditions compiled by the Social Security Administration (SSA). Qualified medical professionals must submit evidence; statements by parents and teachers aren’t enough.
  • The SSA approves only about 40 percent of applications.
  • The law directs SSA to review eligibility at least every three years (or sooner, in the case of low birth-weight babies) since children’s conditions may change. These reviews lead to benefit terminations for about 20 percent of cases overall and about half of low birth-weight babies.
  • Even during the recession, nearly half of children on SSI had a working parent.
  • Most families are below the poverty line without the SSI payment but above the line with the payment.

If the allegations that Kristof reports are indeed true, then these instances need to be addressed. (Although Rebecca Vallas — Community Legal Services attorney and co-chair of the national SSI Coalition for Children and Families — reports here on similar allegations that have been debunked by numerous studies, including a 2012 U.S. Government Accountability Office report.)

“To the extent that there are flaws in the SSI program for children, it is, in large part, because reviews in the program are not adequately funded,” says Dr. LaDonna Pavetti, vice president of the family income support division at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). In fact, last year Congress wouldn’t appropriate $140 million in unused SSA administrative funding for these “program-integrity” reviews. President Obama has requested the full amount again for 2013.

Also, where Kristof concludes that the anecdotes he reports are about “parents who think it’s best if a child stays illiterate,” I think (if they are reliable accounts) they are about parents who are unimaginably desperate — in need, ironically, of home visits that are similar to the ones Kristof touts as boosting children’s success. Kristof suggests that these families are not lacking in material — that a majority “have air-conditioning… a washing machine and dryer… microwave ovens.… What they don’t have is hope.” (Given that the county he describes has unemployment and poverty rates that are more than twice the levels for the state — and that for every 100 families in poverty in Kentucky only 24 receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance — I’ll hazard a guess that they are also lacking adequate food, stable housing, preventative healthcare, decent schools, jobs with a living wage and other necessities besides hope.)

He describes a Save the Children home visit program that teaches parents “the skills they need in the world’s toughest job: parenting.” (A job that would be even tougher for a parent with a disabled child who couldn’t access SSI due to budget cuts.) The program encourages parents “to read to the children, tell stories, talk to them, hug them.” But Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty — who has been using the latest research on home visits to try to improve work outcomes for low-income parents in California’s TANF program — says Kristof doesn’t quite grasp the essence of what a top-notch home visit program does either. It isn’t simply about parenting a child.

“Home visit programs are about wrapping families with the kind of support that they need to be successful — whether that is referrals to services, mental health interventions, pre-natal or post-natal parental education, or simply another adult to talk to about a challenging situation,” she says. “We cannot achieve successful child outcomes by failing to understand parents’ needs.”

She points to Kristof’s description of Anastasia McCormick — pregnant with twin boys and walking “two miles each way to her job at a pizza restaurant” due to a broken-down $500 car.

“I don’t want to write anybody off, but I admit that efforts to help Ms. McCormick may end with a mixed record,” Kristof writes, essentially writing her off. “But those twin boys she’s carrying? There’s time to transform their lives, and they — and millions like them — should be a national priority.” (In contrast to his take on Anastasia, Kristof “bets on” a young mother in the Save Our Children program.)

“A strong home visit program would actually recognize Anastasia’s resilience,” says Bartholow. “She’s pregnant and walking two miles to some low-wage job because that’s the very best she can do for her children right now. A strong program would build on that resilience and might help this young mother to identify new educational or training opportunities, for example.”

There is broad agreement with Kristof’s larger point — that there needs to be greater investment in early childhood initiatives such as home visiting, Early Head Start, universal pre-K and quality childcare. But it is reckless and irresponsible to suggest — based on anecdote — that these investments should be paid for by reducing funding for one of the most vital and successful programs that protects vulnerable families. Doing so would lead to worse outcomes for children.

“It is almost certain that even the best early childhood programs would be less effective — and possibly not effective at all — if families’ only source of income was taken away,” says Pavetti. “It is true that there is evidence that many early childhood programs are effective, but we also know that income in early childhood matters not only for school outcomes but also for employment outcomes later in life.” In fact, a $3,000 annual boost in income for young children in low-income families is associated with increased educational achievement in the early grades, and a 17 percent increase in earnings when those children reach adulthood.

If Kristof is looking for resources to reinvest, he might instead turn his and his readers’ attention to the military budget, which — depending on whom you ask — is now greater than the next ten (President Obama), thirteen (Pete Peterson Foundation) or seventeen (George Will) countries’ military budgets combined.

I don’t relish critiquing Kristof’s work — he’s written too many pieces I’ve printed and saved, or referenced in my own blog. His work is an example of how writing can make a real difference in policy and in people’s lives. So I’ll end by simply saying this: “Twitta di meno, controlla di piu’ i fatti.” It’s Italian for “Tweet less, fact-check more.”

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