Don’t pull the net out from children

The following post first appeared in A Better Life, a blog for the Courier-Journal about the aftermath of the recession.

Over the weekend, New York Times Columnist Nick Kristof caused a bit of a stir with his column “Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy.” Kristof argues that some families in poverty – specifically families in Breathitt County in eastern Kentucky – keep their children illiterate to ensure they receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI). This is troubling, but we have to dig a little deeper. Kristof also says policymakers should instead invest in early childhood education programs.

Investing in early childhood education is certainly an effective solution to addressing poverty. But we also need to look at the value of safety net programs. As the Center for Economic Policy Research points out – and as Kentucky Youth Advocates outlined in an essay in our 2010 KIDS COUNT book – families need adequate economic resources to meet the basic needs of their children. Caring for a child with a physical or mental disability can impose a serious financial burden on a low-income family. Low-income families with children who have severe disabilities more often face struggles with hunger, homelessness, and an inability to pay utility bills than other low-income families. Supplemental security income helps families meet some of the costs related to caring for children with disabilities and helps them reduce financial insecurity.

To investigate whether this is a widespread problem let’s look at what the data show. In Kentucky, the families of 29,922 children with disabilities received cash assistance through SSI in 2011.  For context, there are a little over one million children in Kentucky, and there were over 100,000 students with some sort of disability in 2010. While any cases of holding a child back from achieving their full potential are disheartening, the data hardly suggest rampant overuse.

A commenter from CEPR’s post put it well: “Certainly, somebody somewhere is using our interstate freeway system for illegal purposes; to transport drugs or undocumented migrants for instance. Therefore, let’s abolish the interstate highways!” If a handful of families are misusing SSI, we should target the abuse but not do away with the entire program that helps so many families make ends meet.

Kristof does acknowledge that safety net programs are keeping people from starving, but they have done more than just that. Before making broad comments about our country’s safety net, Kristof should have looked at some of the strong programs that work. The Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, has been proven to get and keep people working while keeping working families out of poverty.

CEPR claims Kristof overly simplified a very complex problem and didn’t do enough journalistic research. Maybe they are right. But Kristof was right about something:

“Our political system has created a particularly robust safety net for the elderly, focused on Social Security and Medicare — because the elderly vote. This safety net has brought down the poverty rate among the elderly from about 35 percent in 1959 to under 9 percent today.

BECAUSE kids don’t have a political voice, they have been neglected — and have replaced the elderly as the most impoverished age group in our country. Today, 22 percent of childrenlive below the poverty line.”

As I’ve outlined before, and as Kristof points out, poverty – particularly child poverty – received very little attention during the 2012 election. This is a shame. Children in poverty are our most vulnerable citizens and need support. Policymakers at all levels of government need to invest time, attention, and resources into building an effective safety net that protects these children and helps us all build a more prosperous future. We – as adults – can hold our political leaders accountable and make sure they do this.