When illiteracy pays the bills

In the hills of Appalachia, parents pull their children out of literacy classes for fear they’ll lose their “learning disability” label and the federal check that goes with it, writes Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times.

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.”

America’s safety net can entangle the poor by rewarding failure and discouraging marriage, writes Kristof.

When SSI was extended to children 40 years ago, only 1 percent of poor children qualified, writes Kristof. They had severe physical or mental handicaps that required intensive parental care. Now 55 percent of children on SSI have vaguely defined “learning disabilities” that essentially mean they’re not retarded and aren’t doing well in school. Eight  percent of low-income children now receive SSI disability at an annual cost of more than $9 billion.

. . . a 2009 study found that nearly two-thirds of these children make the transition at age 18 into SSI for the adult disabled. They may never hold a job in their entire lives and are condemned to a life of poverty on the dole . . .

Kristof recommends community visitors to help low-income mothers, pre-kindergarten and encouraging marriage. (Marriage! It’s not just for gays!)

I’d suggest eliminating SSI disability for children unless their disability imposes extra costs on the family.

When I reported on welfare reform, I met a teenage mother who supplemented her welfare income with SSI for her son, who’d been born three months early, before the mother’s 15th birthday. When he was two, the pediatrician decided he wasn’t disabled after all. Though happy her son was developing normally, she was distraught at losing the extra money. Still, she got a half-time job at the community college, where she was learning office technology.  She discovered that she loved working.  I don’t know if she worked her way out of poverty. She came from a very messed-up family and her boyfriend had abandoned her. But she had a shot.

About Joanne


  1. I have heard that another significant group of kids receiving this are the “emotionally disturbed”, whose parents may coach them so they can be diagnosed and the parents get the “crazy money.” Of course, there are real psych diagnoses, but the subjectivity inherent in many diagnoses makes them easy to abuse. The same is true of various SLDs, of course; some kids may simply have been poorly taught or have failed to try.

    • Momof4, 60 minutes many years ago did a piece on these students and ‘crazy money’…it’s pretty pathetic, IMO.

  2. Gov’t handouts encourage dependency!?!?!?

  3. Is there an actual, documented case of even a single child being “pulled out of literacy classes” in order to keep the child on SSI? It sounds like an urban myth.

    Not that “funny money” isn’t an issue in some parts of the country, or that the manner in which children are approved for SSI isn’t something that should be reconsidered, but I prefer to focus on real problems rather than urban myths.

    • Florida resident says:

      Dear Aaron !
      I actually read the cited article by Nicholas Kristof.
      I can not vouch for its truthfulness, but there are the examples, which you are asking for.

  4. What really chaps my hide is that my son would qualify for *real help* in transitioning to adulthood had our family qualified for SSI. They don’t help teens from middle and upper-class families navigate this morass. We will have to hire a lawyer, likely, as we will want the county to have guardianship (I will not be around forever).

    I agree that SSI should be eliminated for disabled children unless the disability poses a given expense. But that being said, I can tell you that there are various waivers (depending on the disability) that would enable parents to recoup these expenses and/or hire a personal attendant. We have one. It is called the Sara Lopez waiver in the state of Missouri. A worker helps my son for 20 hours a week with “life skills” (cooking, job applications, whatever) and we are very thankful for the help and careful about how we use it.

    • Unfortunately ALL the help disappears on the 18th birthday. We go from help to zero support, hence the lawyer and mad scramble to do paperwork after that time. There really should be a more seamless transition.

  5. Cardinal Fang says:

    From the official rules for SSI for children:
    The child must have a physical or mental condition, or a combination of conditions, that results in “marked and severe functional limitations.” This means that the condition(s) must very seriously limit your child’s activities.

    Examples given include very low birthweight (with reviews as the kid gets older and may have outgrown the disability), blindness, deafness, Downs, severe intellectual disorder, HIV.

    As written, every one of those disabilities would surely impose costs on the parents. *As written*, dyslexia doesn’t qualify. So it looks to me that if the rules were applied as written, no one here would have a problem with them. If non-disabled children are receiving aid, that ought to be treated as fraud.

    Does anyone here have knowledge of the actual childhood disability rate in the desperately poor areas of Appalachia that Kristof is talking about? Is there reason to believe that, nationwide, fraud in childhood SSI is a large problem? Bigger than other kinds of fraud that might merit our attention?

  6. It’s a pretty thorough process that you have to go through to get SSI, and LDs or dyslexia alone do not qualify. There is no tiered response for lower IQ. You have to have a number that’s at least below 70. If you are a 71, you’re out of luck and have to compete for a job along with people of average IQ.

    Along with SSI comes Medicaid and possibly Medicare at a later date. If you get a job, however, and it would probably be a low wage job, you could lose your SSI, and probably Medicaid, so you can see the incentives at play here since the low paid, part time job probably won’t have health care.

    Also, SSI recipients can’t have more that $2,000 dollars in assets at any given time. You need to spend to keep the money under that number. It’s the government’s money, but there are only incentives for spending, not for saving since you would be at $2,000 pretty quickly if you were frugal.

    Also, if you should die and your SSI child inherits what you have, if it’s over $2,000, he loses the SSI/Medicaid and you aren’t around to help him get it it back. You must get a will and put everything in trust to prevent that from happening.

    It’s all a big mess, and not worth it, except if something should happen to you and your disabled child has nothing else, he’s going to need that money to survive.

  7. Cardinal Fang says:

    Thanks for the link, Mark. That’s mighty depressing. Summary: In those poor Appalachian counties, about a third of all people over 5 years old are disabled, according the American Community Survey. In a typical rich county, the number is more like 9 or 10%.

    I can’t compute the exact percentage of disabled children in the pooled Appalachian counties including McDowell County West Virginia, because the numbers don’t separate out children and seniors. But about a third of all people over five are disabled, and about a third of all working-age people are disabled, so probably a good guess is about a third of all children are disabled.