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.”

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

  • As of October 2012, more than 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 US 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 one in four 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 US 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 $3000 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.”

Get involved

Tell @WhiteHouse and Congress to Protect and Strengthen SNAP

Renew Unemployment Insurance

Reauthorize VAWA and Protect Native Women


Conversation for Reconciliation: Apology to Native Peoples of the United States,” December 19, 11 am, in front of the US Capitol. The 2010 DOD Appropriation Act (HR 3326) contains a buried apology to Native peoples of the United States. The apology has never been clearly communicated to the nearly 5 million Native American citizens. A diverse group of citizens will host a public reading of this bill in an effort to spark a national conversation for reconciliation between the US and Native America.

23rd Annual National Homeless Persons Memorial Day, Friday, December 21. In 2011, 175 communities representing forty-four states and the District of Columbia participated and recognized the names of almost 2,000 individuals who died last year experiencing homelessness. The National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, and the National Consumer Advisory Board co-sponsor this event to bring attention to the tragedy of homelessness and our nation’s failure to end it. Find an event near you here.

Clips and other resources (compiled with Christie Thompson)

Why Most Walmart and Fast Food Workers Didn’t Strike,” Nona Willis Arnowitz

Fox Deceptively Links Growth Of Food Stamp Program To 2009 Stimulus Bill,” Emily Arrowood

The Lottery Effect: Basing Policy on Outliers Is a Bad Idea,” Rachel Black and Aleta Sprague

Across nation, unsettling acceptance when mentally ill in crisis are killed,” Kelley Bouchard

The Veterans Homelessness Numbers Are Down: What’s Next?” Mary Cunningham

On Cory Booker and Poverty’s Psychic Costs,” Gene “G.D.” Demby

Don’t push women and families over the ‘fiscal cliff’,” Joan Entmacher

Home Care Workers Urge Obama To Follow Through On Granting Minimum Wage Protections,” Dave Jamieson

In Memphis and Elsewhere, Concentrated Poverty Harms Life Chances,” Amanda Mireles

Housing Agency’s Flaws Revealed by Storm,” Eric Lipton and Michael Moss

The Geography of Hunger in Chicago,” Whet Moser

McDonald’s $8.25 Man and $8.75 Million CEO Shows Pay Gap,” Leslie Patton

INFOGRAPHIC: We Could End Homelessness With The Money Americans Spend On Christmas Decorations,” Adam Peck

As Washington Fiddles over the Fiscal Cliff, the Real Battle Over Inequality Is Happening in the Heartland,” Robert Reich

To Help Families Locally, Changes Are Needed at the State Level,” Karon Rosa

Could You Survive on $2 a Day?,” Gabriel Thompson

For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars,” John Tierney

Helping Depressed Low-Income Mothers Give Their Young Children a Good Start,” Urban Institute panel discussion

Emerging Fiscal Cliff Deal Spares Corporations, but Not the Safety Net,” George Zornick

Reports (summaries written by Christie Thompson)

Examining Growth in the Federal Prison Population, 1998 to 2010,” by Kamala Mallik-Kane, Barbara Parthasarathy and William Adams, The Urban Institute. In the last decade, the number of federal prisoners serving time has increased by 77 percent. Most of the increase in incarceration is due to longer sentences for nonviolent crimes. Over half of those in federal custody are drug offenders, and their lengthening sentences alone accounted for one-third of the increase in prisoners. The federal government also increasingly cracked down on undocumented immigrants, who now make up 12 percent of our prisons’ population. A recent study from the Urban Institute found the rising cost of keeping people behind bars is diverting funds from needed services. One-fourth of the Department of Justice’s budget is spent on the Bureau of Prisons. With the bureau requesting $6.9 billion for FY2013, the United States can no longer afford the high cost of criminalization.

Medicaid/CHIP Participation Among Children and Parents,” by Genevieve M. Kenney, Victoria Lynch, Michael Huntress, Jennifer Haley, and Nathaniel Anderson, The Urban Institute. There is some good news to pull from recent poverty statistics: the number of poor children who were eligible for public benefits but still uninsured has declined. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) now reaches 4.4 million low-income kids across the country. The improvement is due to expanded eligibility, and implementing state policies to improve enrollment and retention.

Transit’s Most Reliable Customers: Why Considering the Needs of Low-Income Populations Improves Public Transitby Tazra Mitchell, North Carolina Budget and Tax Center. In North Carolina, officials are rapidly expanding the state’s public transit options, from additional bus services to the development of a commuter rail. Beyond the environmental benefit, these investments increase low-income North Carolinians’ access to education and job opportunities. Whether the project is successful depends entirely on its ability to serve poor and working-class families. Employees earning less than $25,000 annually made up 67 percent of public transit riders in 2011. But improved bus service isn’t enough. Mitchell points out the importance of increasing and preserving affordable housing options in city centers, and matching transit to where low-income families currently reside. “The success of new and expanded transit in North Carolina will largely depend on how well [it] retains and reaches its most reliable customers: low-income North Carolinians. This requires developing transit plans with an eye to where low-income people live and where the opportunities for economic and social participation exist,” Mitchell writes.

Women Suffer Two-Thirds of Losses if Congress Ends Improved Tax Credits for Working Families,” National Women’s Law Center. If Congress decides to end tax cuts for middle-class families this January, women and their families will be the hardest hit. Changing the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit will mean hundreds or thousands of dollars coming from the pockets of working-class women. After both credits were expanded in 2009, they lifted more than 9 million Americans out of poverty. Ending these 2009 improvements would take $12.6 billion in tax credits away from low- and moderate-income working families next year, and push working women and their families into poverty.

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $23,021 for a family of four): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.

Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including more than one in three African-American and Latino children. Poorest age group in the country.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, one in fifteen Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Employment rate for people with disabilities, 2010: 18.6 percent.

Employment rate for people with no disabilities, 2010: 63.5 percent.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Quote of the Week

Mr. Kristof seems to imagine that poor people have freely chosen this comfortable life living on disability and food stamps. He has no idea how difficult it is to get either form of assistance and how inadequate the benefits are. SSI payments are set at roughly 75 percent of the poverty level and food stamps are only intended to provide 75 percent of the food you need—hardly a comfortable life for someone who we have determined to be unable to work. Despite his quotes about the plush life of poor people with all their air conditioners and microwaves, what I see are families doubled and tripled up in trailers and small houses—where everyday is a struggle to pay for food, electricity, rent, transportation and other basic needs. People keep talking about providing “opportunities” for poor people. Where are they? Is there some vast pool of unfilled low skill labor jobs with living wages I don’t know about? And how would that matter to the millions of disabled folks? Do we have appropriate work opportunities for them as well? How can our safety net be so overly generous when 20 percent of food stamp households have no cash income at all? Where is the outrage about that?”
                             —Jack Frech, director,
                             Athens County Department of Job and Family Services (in Appalachian Ohio)

Christie Thompson co-wrote the “Clips and other resources” section of this blog, and wrote the “Reports” section.

This Week in Poverty posts here on Friday mornings, and again on Sundays at Moyers & Company. Today in Poverty posts earlier in the week. You can e-mail me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter.