Soul Crushing Dependency

Hallelujah! A liberal gets it! At least Nicholas D Kristoff has come to understand that while government programs to aid the poor may indeed do much good, they may also create perverse incentives that encourage generation after generation of poverty. He writes about this in his column, observing that parents, (or parent, single parenthood is a big part of the problem) will actually take children out of literacy classes to ensure that they do not learn to read. If the child learns to read well, they may not qualify for disability checks for their learning disabilities.

THIS is what poverty sometimes looks like in America: parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability.

Many people in hillside mobile homes here are poor and desperate, and a $698 monthly check per child from the Supplemental Security Income program goes a long way — and those checks continue until the child turns 18.

“The kids get taken out of the program because the parents are going to lose the check,” said Billie Oaks, who runs a literacy program here in Breathitt County, a poor part of Kentucky. “It’s heartbreaking.”

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. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.

Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.

Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage: In a means-tested program like S.S.I., a woman raising a child may receive a bigger check if she refrains from marrying that hard-working guy she likes. Yet marriage is one of the best forces to blunt poverty. In married couple households only one child in 10 grows up in poverty, while almost half do in single-mother households.

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.

“One of the ways you get on this program is having problems in school,” notes Richard V. Burkhauser, a Cornell University economist who co-wrote a book last year about these disability programs. “If you do better in school, you threaten the income of the parents. It’s a terrible incentive.”

There is a lot more to read there. It may be easy to look down on such people as being ignorant fools who are short changing their children, but consider the conditions there. There is not much economic opportunity in Breathitt County. Keeping their children illiterate, while short sighted, makes perfect sense to them.

Here we have the actual problem. People do respond to incentives. If you reward dependency, illiteracy, and irresponsibility, than you will get more of it. Why should someone work, if they can get enough to get by, while not working. If you punish hard work and initiative, and excelling in education,  which all too many of these programs seem to be doing, than you will get less of it. This isn’t really too difficult to understand.

What is the answer for places like Breathitt County? I really do not know. I think that liberals and conservatives both ought to be able to agree that if we want to help these people, the best way to go about doing it would be to help them be able to help themselves. Ultimately, the goal ought to be to get as many of these people as possible to the point where they do not need the government to help them. This would be good for the country and for them. It wouldn’t necessarily be good for the government, or for the people who administer such programs, who profit by a child’s illiteracy as well, so I am not expecting any change soon.

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