Reading is Fundamental — to Liberty

Michael Barone, at The Washington Examiner pointed me to this Sunday piece by Nicholas Kristof from The New York Times. It’s entitled “Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy”. It may be the most repugnant thing I’ve read in a while.

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.

Many people in hillside mobile homes here are poor and desperate, and a $698 monthly check per child from the Supplemental Security Income program goes a long way — and those checks continue until the child turns 18.

“The kids get taken out of the program because the parents are going to lose the check,” said Billie Oaks, who runs a literacy program here in Breathitt County, a poor part of Kentucky. “It’s heartbreaking.”

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.

I’m not surprised that Kristof — a liberal in good standing — is surprised. History and its lessons are not the strong suit of the Left. It’s like he just found out water was wet — or rather, he’s like Jim Carrey playing Lloyd Christmas in Dumb and Dumber who, while walking out of a bar sees a framed newspaper headline of the Apollo moon landing and runs out of the bar screaming “We landed on the Moon!!!”

Kristof is right though… “soul crushing dependency” is the most apt description of such a lifestyle I’ve read. Of course, this is the obvious result to anyone who possesses common sense aka “the sense God gave ya” as my grandpa would say. See Proverbs:

6Go to the ant, O sluggard,
Observe her ways and be wise,
7 Which, having no chief,
Officer or ruler,
8 Prepares her food in the summer
And gathers her provision in the harvest.
9 How long will you lie down, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
10 “A little sleep, a little slumber,
A little folding of the hands to rest”—
11 Your poverty will come in like a vagabond
And your need like an armed man.
Proverbs 6:6-11 (NAS)

It doesn’t take a believer to see the truth in that. It apparently doesn’t take a gaggle of government “experts” and bureaucrats to see it either. A cursory understanding of human nature and incentives would inform even the most mediocre mind that perhaps such perversity shouldn’t be encouraged. Barone covers this political angle and even Romney’s ill-advised “47% angle”

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.

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.

Of course the ultimate blame lies with these parents who take the dole either out of laziness or some numbskull dream that the coal mine will reopen some day or some foolish idea that it actually helps their kids. As Hesiod wrote in Works and Days, “…he who neither thinks for himself nor learns from others, is a failure as a man.” Just because someone makes it easier to be a sluggard doesn’t justify remaining in poverty or stripping your kids of the ability to escape poverty for a government pittance.

** (UPDATE) In response to Rufus in the comments, I want to make clear that we as a society bear some blame for allowing these government programs to exist, for electing official who refuse to provide oversight, leadership, etc., and for electing Presidents who put demagoguery ahead of principals seemingly every time when it comes to entitlement programs.

9 comments to Reading is Fundamental — to Liberty

  • Rufus

    Nicholas Kristof, memorize this:

    “If you want less of something, tax it.
    If you want more of something, subsidize it.”

  • Rufus

    Two key things Barone leaves out:
    Many, many people claim disability from sloth, and sloth alone.

    Every benefit receiving citizen who receives a benefit that is not necessary enslaves each one of us in relation to the cost of the benefit. My parents took time to teach me to read so I would grow to be productive. Now Uncle Sam impounds my wages through taxation to give to people who won’t do the same. I am an indentured servant, forced through the threat of garnishment or imprisonment to work to pay for their sloth.

    But I disagree with you, Floyd. We do share blame. We contribute to this society. You and I fund a system that does this to its citizens.

    • I think we share blame. Everything wrong about modern America (and the great things about it) ultimately rest with “we the People”, but the individual can resist temptation — that separates us from the animals after all. A friend of mine used to donate a good chunk to Appalachian charities and when she learned from the charity that many refused to move where education and jobs were in a vain idea that the mines might return she moved her money elsewhere because she didn’t want to subsidize such foolishness.

    • Adopt a slave/serf name, Rufus. I’ve already taken “Easu-Motif,” but the possibilities are endless.

  • Texacalirose

    Speaking of responsibility and blame, during my commute tonight, I heard the news that Obama is sending 20 F-16’s and more to the Muslim Brotherhood. So, I’ve decided that I no longer support Israel. Screw ’em. >90% of Jews voted for Obama. Screw ’em. I’m not sending my Suns or my Grand Suns to bail ’em out “over there” anymore. Screw ’em all.

  • Daniel Crandall

    I see the soul-crushing dependency on government in my mindless co-workers feeding off the sweat of working men & women while they sit on their more than ample … assets.. getting paid to do nothing in a gov’t job.

  • Tracy,txmom2many

    I just feel deeply sad because reading is such a joy for me. It was an escape in some unbearable situations, it let me see hope, it made me laugh, it taught me compassion, it broadened my mind and horizons. I can’t imagine the world they live in and why they want the money more than freedom for their minds.

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