Kristof: Government Safety Net Perpetuates Poverty, Illiteracy

According to New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, assertions by liberal lawmakers that a social safety net provided by the government is a bridge to give the destitute an opportunity to cross into a life of self-sufficiency — something far from stifling ambition — might not be accurate, and that a significant portion of recipients do treat such assistance as a permanent crutch. For example, in order to continue receiving subsidies for raising special needs kids, some families in the Appalachian Hill country pull their children out of literacy classes, fearing that they might take to learning a little too well, which could reduce public benefits for the family.

The poverty level in and around Breathitt County, Kentucky is extremely high, making the nearly $700 a month until the child turns 18 all that stands between some families and total financial oblivion. Thus, by handing out these generous checks, the government sets up a system of perverse disincentives that drive families not to improve their lot, but to create yet another generation doomed to live in crippling poverty.

According to a study conducted in 2009, nearly two-thirds of children who qualified for the subsidy in their youth transition directly into the SSI program for adults once they turn 18. They will never hold jobs or get an education, and will continue to live on handouts for the rest of their lives.

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.

Yet there are some organizations working to break this cycle, among them the nationally recognized Save the Children. Kristof notes that judging from late-night infomercials, many believe that Save the Children focuses its efforts on communities far away in Africa and Southeast Asia, but it maintains a strong presence in high-poverty areas of the United States as well.

Save the Children trains community members to make home visits to at-risk moms like Ms. Hurley, and help nurture the skills they need in the world's toughest job: parenting. These visits begin in pregnancy and continue until the child is 3 years old.

As the name of their organization suggests, Save the Children focuses its efforts mostly on young people. The wisdom of this tactic has been borne out by substantial body of research showing that early intervention, especially in the areas of education, can turn around a child whose destiny seemed to have been to continue living in poverty well into adulthood.

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