Poor Parents May Encourage Failure in Their Children

                Should low income families have children? Many would say it’s unfair, even un-American, to preclude would-be parents from having kids before they climb a socio-economic ladder to the middle class. Should those who yearn for children be penalized because they might never earn a decent wage? There is no easy answer. But we, as a society, need to consider several issues.

            In a column entitled “Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy,” in the December 9, 2012 New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes about anti-poverty programs in the Appalachian hill country of Kentucky that, ironically, work against children. If a child who qualifies for a monthly $698 Supplemental Social Security Income (SSI) because of an intellectual disability, attends literacy classes and learns to read, the youngster’s family will no longer collect that check. As a result, some poverty-level parents obviously don’t “go for broke.” Instead, they pull their kids away from their only hope for a successful future – the reading program. 

            Because of illiteracy, many kids from poor families remain unproductive as they reach adulthood. Instead of joining the military, which offers an opportunity for some young adults to escape the poverty of rural America, they stick around in “them thar’ hills” and depend on food stamps and disability payments. 

Appalachian cabin. Photo – SUNY Geneseo

           Kristof points out that about forty years ago, SSI was designed to aid children with mental retardation and/or severe physical difficulties. As time went by, the diagnosis that qualified young people for SSI became “fuzzier,” and less related to specific disorders. The resulting problem is that 8 percent of all low-income children in America now receive SSI payments. This amounts to $9 billion-plus and creates quite a burden on taxpayers.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof

The real shocker is that low-income families with questionable scruples have a stake in their children failing at school. Consequently, many of these kids become failures in life. They transition from the SSI dole they receive until age eighteen to collecting adult SSI benefits, and they become  stuck in a cycle of poverty. Due to their parents desperation to keep the SSI cash cow “milk” flowing, 1.2 million children across this country have essentially “learned” to fail.

            Adding insult to injury, because SSI is means tested – meaning benefits depend on family income – some parents avoid marriage in order to qualify for higher benefits. Yet, single-parent families produce five-fold as many kids growing up in poverty as do two-parent families.

            A mother of two who lives in the hill country told Kristof, that “her $500 car had just broken down and she had to walk two miles each way to her job at a pizza restaurant.” He says,“That’s going to get harder because she’s pregnant with twins, due in April.” Is it fair that she’s voluntarily bringing two more children into the world when their chance for failure might well trump their meager chance for success? Everyone must decide for themselves in this free country of ours. But there is much our society can do to stem this behavior to the benefit of all.

            We believe that government programs should be more proactive in discouraging poverty-stricken  young adults from making kids in the first place. Consider this:

  • Children from low-income families tend to do more poorly on tests, have lower graduation rates, and are less likely to attend or graduate from college than their middle-class counterparts. 
  • Poverty affects a child’s brain. When comparing the brains of children ages 9 -10, from both low- and high-income families, the prefrontal cortexes showed that the “poorer” brain was akin to that of a person who had suffered a stroke. Poverty also affects a child’s IQ and behavior.
  • Children who live in a low-income family usually suffer from malnutrition. In this case malnutrition means not eating enough healthy foods, or eating too many unhealthy foods. Parents stretch their precious dollars by buying cheaper, processed groceries. The results are obesity, vitamin defiency, and myriad health problems for the kids.

Let’s boil this down to a simple mathematical formula: poverty + illiteracy + single parenthood = stupidity. We agree with Nick Kristof – some of SSI funding should be diverted to programs like Save the Children, which work in areas where kids aren’t going to school and where parents are unable to read to their children. But we also believe that schools should be teaching our formula to kids before they’re old enough to get pregnant.

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