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Welfare Argument Sparks Debate
PHOTO: Nicholas Kristof attends Somaly Mam Foundation Gala "Life is Love" to empower survivors in the fight to end slavery, Oct. 17, 2012 in New York City.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, the journalist who champions human rights around the world, wants the government to stop giving welfare checks to poverty-stricken children with disabilities. It's a stance that inspired solidarity with conservatives and fiery criticism from liberals, not Kristof's usual reception.

In an op-ed published in the Sunday Times titled " Profiting from a Child's Illiteracy," Kristof argued that Social Security and welfare benefits are perpetuating the cycle of poverty in America.

It's an argument that goes back decades, and it has generally been favored by conservatives. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan used it to condemn President Obama's social policies throughout the presidential election, saying such benefits lead to dependency, not self-sufficiency.

Speaking with Kristof on MSNBC Monday, Republican Joe Scarborough praised Kristof's idea that the benefits are perpetuating a cycle of dependence.

"Whether you're in Midtown Manhattan or at the Capitol in Washington, you now have generations of Americans that have been raised with this as a way of life," Scarborough said. "And the great question is, how do we break the cycle?"

Kristof's op-ed suggested reinforcing learning programs that work with children to overcome illiteracy. He quoted conservative scholar Richard Burkhauser, saying today's welfare programs give parents an incentive to encourage their children to do poorly in schools.

"I hope that the budget negotiations in Washington may offer us a chance to take money from S.S.I. and invest in early childhood initiatives instead," Kristof, 53, wrote, referring to Supplemental Security Income, a U.S. Treasury-funded program that gives stipends to low-income children and elderly or disabled adults.

Such a suggestion is rarely heard from liberals, and it was not well received.

"Oh, dear god, have I seen this movie before. You have the heartbroken local bureaucrat without any specific examples, just 'many people.' You have the statistics-free analysis of programs, and you have the pet 'scholar' from the American Enterprise Institute who, in a stunning coincidence, writes a book concluding pretty much the same thing about social-welfare programs that everyone else at AEI believes," Charles Pierce wrote in Esquire magazine's politics blog.

"And, of course, there is the anguished liberal conscience of the Times columnist. What's missing, of course, are any of the actual people who allegedly are getting fat on disability payments."

Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, supported his claim that parents benefit from their children's failure on a quote from the head of a literacy program in rural Kentucky, who told him parents were preventing their children from learning to read.

Jonathan Stein, a lawyer at advocacy firm Community Legal Services, countered that low-income children who are illiterate don't automatically qualify for disability benefits.

"Illiteracy is NOT and has never been a ground of eligibility to obtain SSI child disability benefits," Stein wrote in an email.

West Virginia literacy specialist Judy Azulay was shocked to read Kristof's op-ed. She said the Times columnist "usually is right on the mark," but in this case she found him way off.

"Parents want to see their kids succeed," Azulay said. "Sometimes parents who are not educated and who have had terrible experiences with the school don't know how to help their kids, but that doesn't mean that they don't want their kids to succeed. It's a different issue."

Azulay has worked in West Virginia schools and with individual literacy tutoring for almost three decades. In the rural areas where she works, Azulay said, the problem is not SSI but a lack of access for families to the resources available.

"Even if the families have money from SSI or other sources to use for transportation to get them to after-school or tutoring programs there is no transportation that they could even spend money on," Azulay said. "There's no public transportation, and there's no taxi cabs. There's no way that you can get a kid access to services."

Rep. Tim Murphy said he sees this, too, in rural areas of his Pennsylvania district.

"In instances like that it's important to have transportation to a program part of the time but also programs going to children's homes, which is probably a greater benefit," Rep. Murphy, R-Pa., said by phone today. "But it's also important that the child goes to the programs where they can see there's a world out there that they can aspire to learn more from and be better in what they do.

"It isn't just enough to give them a check. They need to have hope," Murphy said, paralleling a line in Kristof's op-ed that argued U.S. families have modern conveniences but "what they don't have is hope."

As for abuse of the system, Murphy said during his time as a psychologist, he saw patients whose parents he felt were "trying to game the system."

"That's a legitimate concern, if those parents are intentionally harming the child's intellectual and academic development. That is abuse and it should be prosecuted as such," Murphy said.

"To what extent that exists, I don't know. Maybe it's a small percentage. But it is important when those factors exist."

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