Someone has kidnapped Nicholas Kristof and is forcing him to write to their specifications.

Transcript with links:

Are we quite sure Nicholas Kristof isn’t being held captive, similar to James Caan’s character in Misery?  I think someone should go to his house—don’t just make a phone call, actually show up at the house, go inside, and look around—and make sure Kristof isn’t being held to a laptop at gunpoint.

That is the most charitable explanation I can think up for his latest column in the New York Times. There are criticisms of his usual approach to global poverty and women’s issues, and those criticisms are valid, but this here is another animal entirely. Sayeth Dear Saint Nick:

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.

There’s the hook: conservatives have a point about America’s safety net. What are his examples?

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.

Has Nicholas Kristof ever served in the military? I’m reading his Wikipedia entry, and I see nothing about military service.

Gee, ya think maybe, given a choice in the matter, a lot of young people would rather NOT risk getting killed, or becoming disabled, homeless vets, just because the state will pay for college IF they’re lucky enough to come back in one piece? You mean they’d rather stay home and not have to shoot at people who may shoot back? The nerve of some people.

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.

Oh, dear.

No. No, no, no, I can’t believe he just did that.

He tells us there’s a correlation between single motherhood and poverty, which is not controversial, and from there, he expects us to believe that getting married will make you not-poor.

Now, how is that supposed to work? That’s something no one’s ever explained to me while lecturing me on the magical fabulousness of marriage. What exactly is it that HAPPENS when you put a ring on it? Do you show the marriage license to your boss and he gives you a fabulous raise? Do you show wedding pictures to the landlord and get your rent cut in half?

No. None of that shit happens. The “family values” crowd have been flapping their arms for decades about how marriage is the magic elixir that fixes everyone’s problems, and yet we still have millions of single mothers raising kids in poverty, because poverty prevents marriage, not the other way around. People who live in poverty are less likely to get married, and those that do marry are more likely to get divorced. This is because the causal relationship between marital status and income level goes in exactly the opposite direction from what Kristof and all the other magical-marriage proselytizers would have us believe.

Now, if well-off men are regularly getting poor women pregnant and refusing to take responsibility for the kids, that is definitely a problem, but if that’s the case, don’t blame the poor single mothers. As it turns out, that is not the case, because poor people generally fuck other poor people, and when two poor people get married, they are still poor and they continue to struggle with whatever issues plagued them before they put a ring on it. This woman who has a great relationship with her child’s father, the guy who earns enough to provide for the family and wants to get married, but she turns him down because that government cheese tastes so good? No, that woman doesn’t exist. If I put her in a novel, it would be absurd.

The centerpiece of his look-at-those-hillbilly-freaks finger-wagging this week is this:

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.

So…what does he have in mind to interrupt the cycle?

I followed Courtney Trent, 22, one of these early childhood coordinators, as she visited a series of houses. She encourages the mothers (and the fathers, if they’re around) to read to the children, tell stories, talk to them, hug them. If the parents can’t read, then Ms. Trent encourages them to flip the pages on picture books and talk about what they see.

Ms. Trent brings a few books on each visit, and takes back the ones she had left the previous time. Many of the homes she visits don’t own a single children’s book.

She sat on the floor in Ms. Hurley’s living room, pulled a book out of her bag, and encouraged her to read to her 20-month-old son, Landon. Ms. Hurley said that she was never read to as a child, but she was determined to change the pattern.

He hears about parents deliberately preventing their perfectly capable children from learning how to read, so the solution is to…send people to their houses with children’s books. For some reason I’m not inspired.

Of American families living in poverty today, 8 out of 10 have air-conditioning, and a majority have a washing machine and dryer. Nearly all have microwave ovens. What they don’t have is hope. You see it here in the town of Jackson, in the teenage girls hanging out by the bridge over the north fork of the Kentucky River, seeking to trade their bodies for prescription painkillers or methamphetamines.

With such limited space for a column, why would he devote valuable word count to talking about household appliances? Does he think these families are not really poor because they have microwaves? Has he ever cooked a family meal on a stovetop after coming home from a 12-hour shift at a shitty job?

A growing body of careful research suggests that the most effective strategy is to work early on children and education, and to try to encourage and sustain marriage. Bravo to Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio for backing a landmark initiative to add one-eighth of 1 percent to the local sales tax to finance a prekindergarten program.

Early childhood education is a totally separate issue from promoting marriage. Those early childhood initiatives tend to be more effective when the kids are getting three solid meals a day and have a steady roof over their heads. With that in mind, I don’t think it’s a useful idea to fund early childhood programs INSTEAD OF direct payments to needy families. Does he have a concrete example of how po’ folk are screwing themselves over by not acting like Nicholas Kristof?

One woman I met, Anastasia McCormick, told me that her $500 car had just broken down and she had to walk two miles each way to her job at a pizza restaurant. That’s going to get harder because she’s pregnant with twins, due in April.

At some point, Ms. McCormick won’t be able to hold that job anymore, and then she’ll have trouble paying the bills. She has rented a washer and dryer, but she’s behind in payments, and they may soon be hauled back. “I got a ‘discontinue’ notice on the electric,” she added, “but you get a month to pay up.” Life is like that for her, a roller coaster partly of her own making.

Sorry, I missed the part where she brought this predicament on herself.

We have a mother who is walking two miles in each direction, while pregnant with twins, so she can keep her job for as long as possible while it doesn’t even pay her enough to cover her family’s expenses. Sorry, what more are we asking her to do? Was she supposed to abort her twins so she wouldn’t lose her job? If that’s what Kristof thinks, then he should fucking say so, and if that is his recommendation, then he is NOT in agreement with conservatives.

And as long as we’re talking about Anastasia McCormick, let’s remember that she didn’t get pregnant with twins all by herself. In Kristof’s own column, there is a picture of her with her fiance and two daughters, so clearly, marriage is on the program for this family. If that fiance isn’t with them anymore, then where did he go? Why are we not asking after him?

I don’t see anything in his commentary about the jobs that are available around Jackson, KY, or the wages these parents can earn. I see no investigation of the quality of the local schools. If the parents can’t put food on the table without disability checks, then perhaps the change that should be made is to offer public assistance to needy families with young children, regardless of the parents’ marital status. If their parents can’t keep them fed and housed, then no amount of Save the Children is going to get them to middle-class stability. And if their parents cannot earn enough between the two of them to pay the monthly bills, they are going to do what it takes to get more money in the bank. It’s not rocket science. Poor people need to eat just as much as I do.


Here is some additional documentation…

Failure of marriage promotion:

Take the Building Healthy Families program, which targeted unmarried but romantically involved couples who were either new parents or expecting a baby. The program, tested in Baltimore, and seven other cities, offered participants many weeks of marriage education classes that focused on improving their relationships with the hopes that this would also help their children. Three years later, researchers reported that the program had produced precisely zero impact on the quality of the couples’ relationships, rates of domestic violence, or the involvement of fathers with their children. In fact, couples in the eight pilot programs around the country actually broke up more frequently than those in a control group who didn’t get the relationship program. The program also prompted a drop in the involvement of fathers and the percentage who provided financial support.

In a few bright spots, married couples who participated in a government-funded relationship class reported being somewhat happier and having slightly warmer relationships with their partners. But the cost of this slight bump in happiness in the Supporting Healthy Marriage program was a whopping $7,000 to $11,500 per couple. Imagine how much happier the couples would have been if they’d just been handed with cash. Indeed, feeling flush might have helped them stay married. After all, the only social program ever to show documented success in impacting the marriage rates of poor people came in 1994, when the state of Minnesota accidentally reduced the divorce rate among poor black women by allowing them to  keep some of their welfare benefits  when they went to work rather than cutting them off. During the three-year experiment and for a few years afterward, the divorce rate for black women in the state fell 70 percent. The positive effects on kids also continued for several years.

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia addresses the supposed abuse of SSI for children:

Illiteracy in and of itself is not a basis for SSI eligibility. A child must have a medically documented impairment that results in “marked and severe functional limitations” in order to qualify for benefits. Inability to read at grade level may be an indicator of a learning disorder or other mental impairment, but on its own is not sufficient to qualify for SSI. Likewise, doing well in school doesn’t mean a child will lose benefits. Academic performance is just one evidentiary factor considered in evaluating a child’s eligibility for SSI.

Media-driven claims alleging supposedly widespread fraud in the SSI program have become a time honored tradition. Yet at each juncture, they’ve been shown to be unsupported by the facts. In the mid-1990s, a flurry of media reports accusing parents of “coaching” their children to “act disabled” for purposes of SSI eligibility led Congress to narrow the eligibility rules and cause more than a hundred thousand children with disabilities to lose critically needed benefits. Those claims were later shown by the Government Accountability Office, SSA’s Inspector General, and a score of other investigations to be baseless – but the damage had already been done. Congress had already legislated by anecdote.