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December 10 2012

A Liberal Has an Epiphany: Hey, Some of These Safety-Net Programs Are Harming People

Charlotte Hays

Hold the presses:  New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof acknowledges that government “safety net” programs often harm the very people such programs were ostensibly designed to help. Kristof wrote yesterday in the Times:

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.

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.

“One of the ways you get on this program is having problems in school,” notes Richard V. Burkhauser, a Cornell University economist who co-wrote a book last year about these disability programs. “If you do better in school, you threaten the income of the parents. It’s a terrible incentive.”

I would have missed the Kristof column if Michael Barone had not taken note of it. Barone had earlier written about the potential for government disability insurance to have a debilitating effect on people’s lives:

Kristof’s column makes a point similar to that in my De. 2 Examiner column on the vast rise in people receiving Social Security Disability Insurance payments. As with SSI, one imagines that those responsible for extending benefits to those not previously eligible did so out of a sense of generosity. But as I noted, “there is also a human cost. Consider the plight of someone who at some level knows he can work but decides to collect disability payments instead. That person is not likely to ever seek work again, especially if the sluggish recovery turns out to be the new normal. He may be gleeful that he was able to game the system or just grimly determined to get what he can in a tough situation. But he will not be able to get the satisfaction of earned success from honest work that contributes something to society and the economy.” Generosity that produces “soul-crushing dependency” is not really generosity.

And Barone, who knows more about voting patterns than any man living, adds:

Breathitt County, by the way, has long been a heavily Democratic county. Even in 1972 it voted 59% for Democrat George McGovern over Republican Richard Nixon. But it’s in coal country and it voted 53% for John McCain in 2008 and 66% for Mitt Romney in 2012. More proof that Romney’s 47% remark was not only hugely ill-advised but simply inaccurate.

Just a few words on Kristof's epiphany. I moved from being a far-left liberal when I encountered something similar as a young reporter in New Orleans. I was covering the CETA program, which was supposed to train people for jobs. In reality, CETA, at least as I saw it in New Orleans, offered an opportunity to stay out of the workforce, while getting a government check. It was, in short, morally destructive. I was soon on the slippery slope towards conservatism. I don't expect that from Mr. Kristof to forsake liberalism, but I heartily applaud his honesty in writing what must have been a painful column.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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