Soul-crushing dependency

Marion Post Wolcott/Library of Congress

One-room school in Breathitt County, Kentucky.

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  • Giving parents an incentive to keep children from learning to read works against a child’s long-term interest.

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  • Generosity that produces “soul-crushing dependency” is not really generosity. @MichaelBarone

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“This is painful for a liberal to admit,” writes liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, “but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in soul-crushing dependency.”

Kristof is writing from Breathitt County, Ky., deep in the Appalachian mountains, about mothers whose Supplemental Security Income benefits will decrease if their children learn to read. Kristof notes that 55% of children qualifying for SSI benefits do so because of “fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation,” far more than four decades ago when SSI was just a new program.

Evidently SSI administrators decided to be more generous to parents of such children. But, as Kristof notes, giving parents an incentive to keep children from learning to read works against the children’s long-term interest.

Kristof’s column makes a point similar to that in my Dec. 2 Examiner column on the vast rise in people receiving Social Security Disability Insurance payments. As with SSI, one imagines that those responsible for extending benefits to those not previously eligible did so out of a sense of generosity. But as I noted, “there is also a human cost. Consider the plight of someone who at some level knows he can work but decides to collect disability payments instead. That person is not likely to ever seek work again, especially if the sluggish recovery turns out to be the new normal. He may be gleeful that he was able to game the system or just grimly determined to get what he can in a tough situation. But he will not be able to get the satisfaction of earned success from honest work that contributes something to society and the economy.” Generosity that produces “soul-crushing dependency” is not really generosity.

Breathitt County, by the way, has long been a heavily Democratic county. Even in 1972 it voted 59% for Democrat George McGovern over Republican Richard Nixon. But it’s in coal country and it voted 53% for John McCain in 2008 and 66% for Mitt Romney in 2012. More proof that Romney’s 47% remark was not only hugely ill-advised but simply inaccurate.

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