Day Twenty-Three: Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy

Yesterday, while I was chewing my way through the sodden cardboard that is the Social Security website in order to learn more about SSI, Nicholas Kristof was on Morning Joe, talking about  . . . SSI. Which at once lent motivation, alignment-of-the-universe, and a slight feeling of hysterical urgency to my online hunting.  I meant to read Kristof’s article in the New York Times, called “Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy” on Monday, but I was too lazy . . . I mean, busy . . . no. I mean lazy.

So, while I pretended to apply for disability to better understand the requirements since they weren’t listed anywhere, I was happy to have them explain it to me, and settled in with my coffee for a listen.


“One of the ways to show that child has a disability is to show that they’re illiterate, that they’re doing poorly in school,” Kristof explained. “Now, the war on poverty did succeed in reducing poverty in senior citizens.”

(This was news to me – when did this richening of the elderly happen?)

Joe leaned in, looking smug.

So it’s just the kids, who are worse off than ever before.”

“Well, there are things that work, for the first years, you know, to get the mother reading to the child, hugging the child, get that child up – ”

“But the mother doesn’t want the child on that starting line because she doesnt get that check. Young men don’t want to join the army, because welfare pays more.”

(Sound the alarms! Welfare Queen alert!)

They continued to quote the article, sipping their Starbucks coffee, shaking their heads. Slowly they stopped rehashing what is problematic, and asked Kristof for a solution. He spoke about the programs that aim at early intervention, working with pregnant women and young children. They discussed how the “wrong things” are incentivized, pondered whether young women should be paid not to have babies, and then turned to jobs.

This was when the old guy on Morning Joe – who looks like a mix of Joe Biden and an owl – piped up.

“First of all, this is not an epidimeic, it’s not going to threaten the Republic.”

(Did he just refer to us as The Republic? How . . . grande.)

“And it’s also not new. In 1967 the senate formed a national nutrition committee and went to Kentucky – right where you went. While you’re talking about SSI, the most important word for the American family is J-O-B. It’s the most important word in the Engish language.”

“But we dont have those in our country right now.”

“Well, I know. . .”


Joe broke the awkward silence.

“But I would imagine where you went, in Kentucky, you now have generations of Americans who have been raised with this as a way of life. The great question is how to we break the cycle. Maybe we’ve answered that?”

Kristof squirmed, sipped his coffee, and tried to reply.

“I dont think we can give up on people, but I do think we can intervene in a way that is going to be cost effective by intervening in the early years. Once a child is in 2nd grade and a child can’t read, they can basically predict who won’t graduate from high school.”

Then they started talking about twitter, and the price of milk in 1967.

I returned to my digging around in the benefits section of the Social Security website, but I couldn’t stop thinking about a trip I took on Tuesday to the Philadelphia Montessori Charter School, that brought Kristof’s points into crystal clear focus. I went in order to meet with the CEO, to discuss my potentially becoming a board member (which I’ll write about at length in a week or two).

We talked about the changes she has made in her two years on the job, to combat the ills she inherited. One of the things the CEO told me about was the attendance policy. The way it was written, a child would be expelled if they missed ten days of school – but those days had to be consecutive. So parents would keep their kids out of school for nine days, send them back for one, then keep them out for eight days, send them back for one – you get the picture. The result was that some students were missing upwards of 87 days of school a year. This impacts the children, the tone of the class, the functioning of the school, the numbers it produces, the funding it receives – it effects everyone. If enough children are absent a school can be shut down because of this nefarious domino effect, and then all children – even the ones who show up every day – are punished.

The solution? They took out the word “consecutive” from the policy. By December of last school year they had 15 students with extreme truancy; this year? Zero.

It’s amazing what wording can do. And it’s amazing how people will find and exploit loopholes.

My first feeling when she shared this story was disgust. Why do these people keep their children out of school for 87 days? What is wrong with these people? But I know better. The disgust faded, and was replaced by sadness. I know it’s not evil, or laziness that makes (most of) them do it. I know that, for many/most, it’s desperation, a lack of other options. It’s priorities that they don’t consider to be bad, or consider at all.

All of these sad truths come in cycles that reinforce the ills of poverty. I’ll share another anecdote that proves what Kristof was talking about.

The fourth & fifth graders of Philadelphia Montessori Charter were learning in trailers outside in the parking lot. On a damp day students couldn’t touch the walls because their hands would go straight through to the outside, the walls were so thin and waterlogged. When it was cold outside they’d have to choose between turning on heaters, or computers. This was how they spent eight hours a day for almost a year.

The CEO couldn’t stomach this. She made a decision. The charter of the school is for grades K-6. So she got the board to approve something she desperately didn’t want to do – stop the Head Start preschool program – which wasn’t part of the charter, although it was extremely important to the school and community – and move the fourth & fifth graders into the warm, indoor classrooms the babies had occupied. Now the school was contained in one building, and the trailers were shut down. The charter was fufilled, and everyone was safe and dry. But the little ones were now lost, either in nursery schools elsewhere, never to return, or stuck at home, losing days and weeks and months and years of time when they should be learning, so that once they start Kindergarten they’ll already be stunted. These are the kids who don’t show up for school. These are the kids and families Kristof was talking about.

And so, to keep the school from being shut down she had to turn away the preschoolers, setting them on the path to become truant students in elementary school, whose presence (or lack thereof) may very likely lead the school to be shut down. Is that irony, or just something darker?

Finding loopholes and “working the system” takes work. It takes cunning, understanding, cost benefit analyses. It also takes desperation and resignation.

Since listening to people argue about an article you’ve never read is like listening to people gossip over drinks about someone you’ve never met, I decided to find and read the Kristof article myself. Here’s the part that has caused such controversy:

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.

WOW – this next part totally shocked me:

But now 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, at an annual cost of more than $9 billion.

Those kids may never recover: a 2009 study found that nearly two-thirds of these children make the transition at age 18 into S.S.I. for the adult disabled. They may never hold a job in their entire lives and are condemned to a life of poverty on the dole — and that’s the outcome of a program intended to fight poverty.

Kristof goes on to describe the work of Save the Children, a group he followed throughout its work in Kentucky – although we usually associate it more with Sudan than Appalachia. He describes their efforts to teach parents the skills – hugging, reading, encouraging talk – that have been proven to combat the traumas of poverty (Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed hinges on this science as well, and is a great read if you haven’t checked it out). Kristof’s conclusion is that part of the problem is that children are voiceless, and therefore powerless, and therefore oppressed. He writes,

I don’t want to suggest that America’s antipoverty programs are a total failure. On the contrary, they are making a significant difference. Nearly all homes here in the Appalachian hill country now have electricity and running water, and people aren’t starving.

Our political system has created a particularly robust safety net for the elderly, focused on Social Security and Medicare — because the elderly vote. This safety net has brought down the poverty rate among the elderly from about 35 percent in 1959 to under 9 percent today.

BECAUSE kids don’t have a political voice, they have been neglected — and have replaced the elderly as the most impoverished age group in our country. Today, 22 percent of children live below the poverty line.

This reminds me very much of Free the Children, which I wrote about a few weeks ago – a program that teaches children how to be advocates and fundraisers for causes they care about – not how to get adults to help them, but how to do it themselves. I was so intrigued by that program, because it does something I think about a lot, and see very little – it treats children like full people; not like dolls, or imbeciles, or half-formed minds, or trick ponies. Like people who have the capacity to understand, think deeply, have power, make good decisions, possess insight and vision. 

I’m curious what other readers had to say, so I checked Kristof’s blog. Reading through the comment thread, the major themes seem to be:

  • Accusing Kristof of falling in step with the “lazy poor people” chant
  • Call for true social welfare, instead of janky programs that don’t actually provide school or healthcare, and are intended to keep people poor
  • Suggesting that the answer is ensure that women don’t have children before they’re “ready”
  • Questions about why red states vote against federal programs, but are full of people who “game the system”
  • The phenomenon of  “defensive ambivalence about education
  • That the despair, lack of initiative, and shriveling of spirit that seeps into truly poor communities is the real problem
  • Tthat children are being held hostage by both their parents, and a system that doesn’t give enough to live on anyway
  • That we should be ashamed that this is happening in our rich country.

And you? What does all of this make you think of?

It makes me think about a question I’ve long pondered:

How would our policies – and country – look different if children were allowed to vote?


3 thoughts on “Day Twenty-Three: Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy

  1. One of my discovered passions has been early childhood literacy and the statistics on this problem are unreal. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds have heard, on average, 30 million fewer words than their counterparts from high socio-economic backgrounds by the time they reach kindergarten ( This starts them at a significant disadvantage as by that time they know only 9 letters of the alphabet while their peers know 22. In Virginia, companies use 4th grade reading scores to project how many prisons they should plan to build. These numbers and their consequences are shocking and show just how little value we place on the future of our country’s children. We have a program in our clinic, Reach Out and Read, which aims to close this gap by providing lower income families with developmentally appropriate books at their well child visits from 6 months to 5 years. The research on the effects of placing books in the home are astounding (

    I have no idea how to solve the bigger problem but just getting books in homes where buying groceries and making rent are the priorities can make a HUGE difference. BTW, North Carolina has just mandated early childhood education. I don’t know the details but it’s a great start.

  2. Great question! What would you suggest to be the voting age? And heat other laws regarding children’s ages would change as a result?

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