In Sunday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof tells us that he hopes “budget negotiations in Washington may offer us a chance to take money from SSI [Supplemental Security for low-income children with severe disabilities] and invest it in early childhood initiatives.” In essence, we need destroy an effective social insurance program for children with severe disabilities in order to … Save the Children!
In the real world, these two things — basic economic supports for low-income parents caring for severely disabled children and educational initiatives — are complementary. As Rebecca Vallas and I have documented, in papers for the National Academy of Social Insurance and the Center for American Progress, the data show that Supplemental Security reduces family economic insecurity and supports parents’ efforts to best care for their severely disabled children.
But in Kristof’s World, which based on his opinion piece, appears to be located in the small, all-white and staunchly Red-voter Breathitt County in rural Kentucky, economic support for parents caring for disabled children and early childhood programs only work at cross purposes. Citing anecdotal evidence from a sample of one person living there as well as the testimony of a long-standing critic of Supplemental Security who has proposed block granting it, Kristof sensationally claims that parents are “profiting from children’s illiteracy” and pulling their kids out of literacy classes in order to keep them disabled and eligible for Supplemental Security.
Of course, there is a venerable traditional of mainstream journalists spreading folkloric urban (and now rural) myths about Supplemental Security. The cycle is well-established—first, mainstream journalists claim that parents are “coaching their children” to appear disabled (prominent in the 1990s) or that parents are medicating their children to make them seem disabled (the most recent scare pre-Kristof), then investigators at GAO, SSA, and other places study the issue empirically rather than just relying on a few anecdotal tales and find that the claims are unfounded. So, for example, with the most recent medication scare, GAO found that children who took medication were actually less likely to qualify for SSI than those who did not. Meanwhile, resources and attention are diverted from focusing on the real-world ways we could make programs like Supplemental Security even more effective for disabled kids and their parents. And so it goes.
Journalistic myth-making about Supplemental Security takes particular aim at parents caring for kids with severe mental impairments. For some reason, there is incredible denial about the reality of mental impairments in 21st century America. Kristof demonstrates this denial when he downgrades the seriousness of mental impairments by calling them “fuzzy.” This might be called the optical definition of child disability. if you look like one of Jerry’s kids, you’re really disabled; if not, well we really can’t be sure, can we?
All of this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be very proactive about ensuring that children meet literacy standards. But this isn’t a problem that is limited to the very small number of low-income children with severe intellectual disabilities who receive Supplemental Security Income. And in the real-world, parents aren’t able to ensure that their children take full advantage of after-school and other programs that might improve their literacy for a very long list of reasons, with “wanting to make sure their children look disabled so they can qualify for Supplemental Security” falling at most near the absolute bottom of that list.
So, instead of destroying effective social insurance programs that provide a foundation of basic economic security to disabled kids, maybe we should build on that foundation instead.