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Children With Disabilities Need Support as Well as Education

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Nicholas Kristof's recently published piece, "Profiting from a Child's Illiteracy," uses stories about child poverty in Kentucky to come to false conclusions about the SSI program, which provides crucial aid to help very low-income families handle the expensive realities of caring for children with disabilities.

Kristof alleges that parents can -- and do -- win SSI disability benefits for a child simply by making sure that the child is illiterate. He bases this on an opinion voiced by a schoolteacher about one child withdrawn from a literacy class. In fact, there is no such avenue for disability benefits in the SSI program, which has an extremely rigorous set of eligibility requirements. Falling behind in school cannot be the basis of a disability finding, just as doing well in school will not necessarily defeat a disability application. A finding of disability can only be based on medically documented conditions. It is very difficult for a child to prove disability for purposes of SSI, especially disability involving mental impairments.

It is highly unlikely that the teacher in Kristof's story had access to the child's medical records. But based on this one anecdote containing a core mistake about the SSI program's rules, Kristof concludes that the SSI program sometimes actually "perpetuates" child poverty by motivating -- and causing -- parents to deprive their own kids of their education. What a bare foundation for such a sweeping denunciation of parents in poverty raising children with disabilities!

Kristof points to an excellent early childhood literacy program operated by Save the Children in the same Kentucky area, and rightly praises early childhood education as a proven way to improve the chances a child will be upwardly mobile later in life. But he poses a false policy choice, advocating that Washington "take money from S.S.I. and invest in early childhood initiatives instead."

Children with disabilities clearly need both. There are strong relationships between the deprivations of deep poverty and mental health. Great early childhood literacy programs like the ones that Save the Children operate can provide much help to children in poverty who have disabilities. But the task is immensely harder if the families the children live in are abjectly poor. The bedrock strategy of the SSI program for children is to provide an essential platform of daily living support from which a child with disabilities can rise.

If there are outlying cases involving abuse by a parent, those cases should be identified and dealt with. That is the stuff of program administration, not policy. For some reason, conservatives periodically have targeted this program for the most vulnerable children in the country, using trumped up allegations of abuse that have never held up under scrutiny. Kristof's attack is wrapped in more sympathetic language, and he at least argues that the funds he would cut from SSI be used on early childhood education (instead of just to shrink the government), but in the end it is the same sort of unfounded attack. Children with disabilities need subsistence support and early childhood programs. Let's not use misleading conclusions from outlying anecdotes to make a big policy mistake.