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