New York Times needs fact checkers

December 12th, 2012 · No Comments · Blog

While “Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy” (Dec. 9) accurately underscores that antipoverty initiatives in the U.S. are “invisible” and lack “traction,” the Op-Ed makes two glaring errors about the childhood SSI program and then uses those mistakes to paint the entire program as misguided and wasteful.  First, Mr. Kristof suggests that children were and are being found disabled and eligible for SSI due to illiteracy.  I have worked with the childhood SSI program since 1988 and I can definitively state that the fact that a child is illiterate does not by itself qualify him or her for SSI monthly benefits.  Second, Mr. Kristoff states that 55 percent of disabilities covered by SSI are “fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation.”  Data from the 2011 SSI Annual Statistical Report (Table 21) provides that 10.4 percent of children receive SSI based on intellectual disability, a far cry from Mr. Kristof’s 55 percent.

Mr. Kristof also admits that antipoverty programs such as SSI have had a positive impact because most of the homes in the Appalachian county he visited had electricity and running water.  If SSI has been responsible for improving living conditions for children with disabilities in places like Breathitt County, Kentucky, it should be considered a success.

But, Mr. Kristof concludes that budget negotiators in Washington might do well to consider taking money from SSI and investing it in early childhood initiatives instead.  Why must the discussion be an either-or proposition?  Must running water and electricity compete with access to early childhood education?

The portrait Mr. Kristof paints of SSI is inaccurate and should not be used to shape a public policy debate. Having just one child with significant disabilities can send a family into poverty. We need a substantive discussion of better ways to assist low income children, but that dialogue needs to be based on facts, not by conflating responsible safety net programs as the cause of “soul-crushing dependency.” And, as someone who has worked with low-income families for nearly 30 years, I believe that the solutions are multi-faceted, requiring assistance both with basic necessities and access to education.

Thomas Yates, Health & Disability Advocates


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