12/18/2012 11:11 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Nicholas Kristof Says, 'I'm No Expert on Domestic Poverty' -- You Can Say That Again

We're used to seeing the truth mangled in the public discourse about poverty, but when it's done by a journalist as respected as Nicholas Kristof, it's surprising bordering on shocking. Kristof put his foot solidly in the mud last Sunday (December 9) when he built his column ("Profiting From a Child's Illiteracy") around an allegation that parents in eastern Kentucky take their children out of literacy programs to make sure they don't lose the federal childhood disability payments that are the main support of the family.

The strong implication was that this parental manipulation (did they also tell their children not to learn to read in school?) is widespread and implicates the entire Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. ("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.") It reminds me of the Boston Globe allegations a couple of years ago, later debunked, that parents were teaching their children to act crazy in order to qualify for benefits.

There is so much to talk about here. Kristof not only mangles how SSI works, but goes on to mouth conservative bromides about low-income Americans in general. It occurred to me that, having seen the terrible poverty of the developing world, Kristof perhaps thinks America's version of poverty in a material sense is not especially worrisome. ("Of American families living in poverty today, 8 out of 10 have air-conditioning and a majority have a washing machine and dryer. Nearly all have microwave ovens" -- although later in the piece, and inconsistently, he discusses the plight of Anastasia McCormick, who "has rented a washer and dryer, but she's behind in payments, and they may soon be hauled back.")

Let's start with SSI. You don't just walk into the office and say you'd just love to have some of that SSI money for your child. Medical professionals have to submit evidence of an impairment that results in "marked and severe functional limitations." The majority of applications are denied. Illiteracy on its own is not sufficient to qualify, and doing well in school doesn't mean a child will necessarily lose benefits. School performance is just one factor in determining eligibility. Cases are subject to periodic reviews that frequently result in benefit termination (although Congress has denied the funding necessary to make the reviews as robust as they should be).

If some parents are doing what Kristof reported, that is unacceptable. On the other hand, Kristof makes a stunning leap from his anecdotal data, saying, "Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it's best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month." If there are two sets of parents who fit his story, the sentence is of course literally correct. However, Kristof's point is, "But the bottom line is that we shouldn't fight poverty with a program that sometimes perpetuates it." Sure, but does he really know that about SSI?

The real villain is the lack of job opportunities which results in deep poverty. It's no accident that Kristof's report comes from the heart of Appalachia. Breathitt County, where Kristof visited, has a median household income a little more than half that of Kentucky as a whole and about 40 percent of the national level. Unemployment and poverty in the county are more than half again the levels for the state, and close to twice the national levels. Welfare -- cash assistance that would ameliorate poverty for families with children -- is now largely unavailable. Only one out of four children in poor families in Kentucky receives it, down from more than three-quarters in the mid-1990s. Food stamps, which provide help at a third of the poverty line (or $6,000 a year for a family of three), are the only source of income for 6.5 million people nationally and for many in Breathitt County.

SSI is only for people with proven, severe disabilities, but it is also (with food stamps) the only source of income for thousands of families in Appalachia, including families with two parents and no prospect at all of finding a job. And it provides access to crucial medical care that might not otherwise be available.

We all need to understand what we have done to cash assistance in the United States. In half the states, fewer than 20 percent of the children live in poor families receiving cash assistance. Fewer than two million families in the entire country now receive cash assistance. The situation in Breathitt County is the fact across most of the country. SSI should not be the main source of income for any family with nondisabled parents of working age. But it is.

Kristof goes on to repeat a statement that in of itself is a truism: "[M]arriage is one of the best forces to blunt poverty." True in theory but not very helpful. Closer to the truth but still not fabulously helpful would be the better bromide of saying that marriage to a man with a steady job is one of the best forces to blunt poverty. But especially in eastern Kentucky, Kristof's advice is more than a little hollow. Marriage to a man who has no job and no prospect of a job is not such a great force to blunt poverty. And why should the labor market be structured so that one out of four jobs in this rich nation pays less than the poverty line for a family of four? Why should having two jobs in a household be the only ticket out of poverty for millions of people?

Even on Kristof's premise that an unemployed mother of a child on SSI would be worse off if she married a man with a job, he is off base. There are marriage penalties in some programs, to be sure, and we should do better at eliminating them. But while some of a stepfather's income may be taken into account in calculating the level of SSI benefits for the child of the woman he marries, the family may receive added income from the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit if the new husband has a low-wage job. It's a whole lot more complicated than Kristof says, and he's conveying misinformation to millions of people who read The New York Times.

We need to end child poverty. Slashing a program that is making a difference for disabled children will only make matters worse.