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Using SSI to Fund Early Education

Tingley-021 colorMore than a little disconcerting is Nicholas D. Kristof’s article in Sunday’s New York Times.  “Profiting from a Child’s Illiteracy” opens with the story of parents in Jackson, Kentucky who pull their kids out of literacy classes so that they don’t learn to read and thus don’t jeopardize their monthly SSI payments for intellectual disabilities.

The $698 per child per month is an incentive that’s hard to ignore says the head of the county literacy program.  Likewise, women with children receive more money per month than they would if they married the father of their children.  And, says Kristof, some young people don’t join the military as a traditional escape from their impoverished circumstances because they’ve already learned to rely on food stamps and disability payments to get by.

Kristoff is careful not to jump to conclusions about the people of Jackson nor about poverty programs in general.  Still, in the 1970s, only about 1% of poor children received SSI, and they were children with severe disabilities – physical handicaps or mental retardation – that made it difficult for parents to work outside the home.  Today, 8% of low-income children receive SSI – a total of 1.2 million kids across the country.  Today some 55% of children receiving SSI qualify for the program under a broad range of intellectual disabilities.

We don’t like to think about poverty in the United States, particularly when it impacts children.  Yet working in Jackson is Save the Children, an organization that most of us associate with TV commercials about kids in underdeveloped countries.  In Jackson the organization works with parents of young children Jackson KY to encourage literacy.  The elementary school principal in Jackson notes that kids who have the benefit of the early literacy program can be quickly spotted when they enter school.  “They’re ready to go,” says Ron Combs.  But, he adds, “By second or third grade you have a pretty good idea of who’s going to drop out.”

As an elementary principal I worked in one of the poorest schools in the state, where some families had been and continued to be on public assistance for generations.  The only way out was and still is education (and to some extent the military).  We know that not every early childhood intervention has been successful; Head Start is a case in point.  It worked well in my area but not so well in others depending upon staff and program.  Still, early education is the best hope we have for breaking the tradition of poverty for children.  And it’s cheaper to educate kids than it is to incarcerate adults as Kristof and others have pointed out.

Kristof writes that he hopes that during the current budget negotiations in Washington money will be diverted from SSI and applied to the development of early childhood education programs.   No more incentives to keep kids at home, dependent on federal support.   Instead, the money might provide a way out of poverty for a new generation.

We all know that Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has plenty to say about cutting entitlements.  It would be interesting to know if he’s visited his constituents in Jackson lately.  Of course, kids don’t vote, but they still count.  Maybe there’s a way to restructure SSI so that it’s not an incentive to keep them from learning.  The trick would be convincing the Senator that helping all kids realize their potential isn’t just the right thing to do; it will eventually save money.

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