“In Second Grade They Have a Dream. In Seventh Grade They Have a Plan.”

The title of Nicholas Kristof's column – Profiting From a Child's Illiteracy – gives you a clue about his take on the unintended consequences of America's anti-poverty programs:

THIS is what poverty sometimes looks like in America: parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability…

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…

About four decades ago, most of the children S.S.I. covered had severe physical handicaps or mental retardation that made it difficult for parents to hold jobs — about 1 percent of all poor children. 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…

THERE’S no doubt that some families with seriously disabled children receive a lifeline from S.S.I. But the bottom line is that we shouldn’t try to fight poverty with a program that sometimes perpetuates it.

A local school district official, Melanie Stevens, puts it this way: “The greatest challenge we face as educators is how to break that dependency on government. In second grade, they have a dream. In seventh grade, they have a plan.”

Complex problems beget complex solutions, or no solutions at all. As a society we long ago made a commitment to help those who needed a hand up, but we've struggled with how to do it without giving them a handout. If you read the full column you'll find that Kristof sees some programs – maybe not so coincidentally they are non-government programs – targeted at children that have shown promise. Unfortunately we don't seem to have the political leadership we need to make these programs a reality on a large scale – and it's appearing increasingly doubtful that we'll see that kind of leadership in this country any time in the near future.

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