Though usually known for his leftist op-eds, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on Sunday made a surprising admission of the failure of a government “antipoverty” program and praised a private charity organization.
In his column, Kristof reported that U.S. Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federal assistance program for low-income disabled and elderly people, is fraught with bizarre incentives. According to Kristof, SSI discourages its beneficiaries from pursuing good job opportunities, because food stamps and disability offer more money. Also, because single women can draw more SSI assistance, female beneficiaries are less-inclined to get married.
In a particularly cruel consequence of the program, Kristof describes “parents . . . in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes.” “Moms and dads,” he says, “fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability.” SSI, he explains, used to provide intellectual disability assistance only to families with mentally retarded children. Now, however, “55 percent of the disabilities it covers are fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation, where the diagnosis is less clear-cut. More than 1.2 million children across America—a full 8 percent of all low-income children—are now enrolled in S.S.I. as disabled.” Many of these children are not permanently disabled (if disabled at all) and could be helped with education, but SSI assistance provides incentive for their parents to keep them “disabled” by withdrawing them from reading class.
Kristof continues, “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.”
In contrast to his criticisms of SSI, Kristof spends several paragraphs praising the anti-poverty efforts of a private charity, Save the Children, which provides far more efficacious relief for families in the Appalachian country.
Although it is refreshing to see a self-described “liberal” write honestly about the perverse consequences created by government wealth redistribution, Kristof, not surprisingly, falls short of taking a principled stand against such programs. He concedes that “we shouldn’t try to fight poverty with a program that sometimes perpetuates it,” but goes on to say that “we still need safety nets” and that government antipoverty programs should be reformed to work more like effective private organizations.
Kristof fails to recognize that, reformed or not, government antipoverty programs are immoral because they are funded through the expropriation of productive Americans’ wealth. Furthermore, if Kristof were to apply his scrutiny of government programs more broadly, he would see practical failings of wealth redistribution all over the place. History shows that the “safety net,” which Kristof insists we need, can be more-than-adequately provided by private charities, such as Save the Children. Though it is perhaps too much for a “liberal” to admit, government wealth redistribution should be abolished.
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