I do not like Nicholas Kristof, the journalist, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and member of the New York Times editorial board. I tell you this not because I expect you to care necessarily, but merely to get my biases out in the open. Given that his history is one of defending injustice and exploiting people in poverty all across the world through the pages of possibly the most influential news source in that world, it’s one of my greatest pet peeves that he is so fawned over by so many liberals. This time, however, instead of cheering sanctions that harm the poor across the oceans, or bashing unions for wanting basic utilities and support, where he usually takes his tourism, he’s brought his usual offensive, patronizing language back home to the United States.
In his Sunday column, Kristof tells the story of how he went down south to Breathitt County, Kentucky, and found a community of people who depend strongly on Supplemental Security Income, a program benefiting eight million Americans who are aged, disabled, or impoverished to such a degree that they cannot operate in society without the assistance. This is a program which helps, albeit insufficiently due to the half-hearted way in which America cares for its neediest, the most marginalized people, the citizens and aliens who have near nothing to call their own. These are not the middle class people being argued over by Republicans and Democrats on the campaign trail and in Congress, the ones who they swear they’re working to fix the huge and terrifying fiscal cliff that they have made up. These are the true poor of this country, the working classes and severely poor that both sides are too scared to talk about for fear that they might remind the wider public that they exist.
Kristof, though, manages to miss the point entirely in his analysis, committing a classic case of correlation not implying causation. He makes the case that American conservatives have a point after all, that being that our social welfare system can cause people to become entrenched in bureaucracy. However, as you might imagine, he also manages to indulge in that finest of right wing pastimes, that being to call poor people lazy.
“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.
In short, Mr. Kristof believes that in our country it is easier to live on food stamps and a $700 check every month than to join the military. He goes on to refer to the people of Breathitt County as being greedy welfare queens, deliberately sabotaging their children’s schooling to keep all that government money for themselves, while characterizing those same children’s learning disorders as being “fuzzy” and “less clear-cut” than previous generations, completely erasing any conversation on the appalling state of mental health care for the poor in our country. Amongst his other appalling claims, possibly the biggest problem is that he wrote this entire column based on nothing but hearsay, apparently from a single source, and, quite simply, the facts are not on his side. For instance, from the Center for Economic and Policy Research:
In the real world, these two things — basic economic supports for low-income parents caring for severely disabled children and educational initiatives — are complementary. As Rebecca Vallas and I have documented, in papers for the National Academy of Social Insurance and the Center for American Progress, the data show that Supplemental Security reduces family economic insecurity and supports parents’ efforts to best care for their severely disabled children.
Angus Johnston decided to do the thing that the man Bill Clinton called the greatest journalist in America completely forgot to do, and actually read the stats on Supplemental Security from the Social Security Administration. He found the following facts about the 1.1% of children who depend on SSI:
- Fewer than thirty percent live with both parents.
- Half live in a household with at least one other person with a disability.
- Almost seventy percent saw a doctor three or more times in the last year.
- Nearly half visited an emergency room at least once in the last year.
- More than half have a disability described as “severe.”
- Forty-three percent have a physical disability.
- Eight percent are described as mentally retarded.
- Seventeen percent have had surgery in the last year.
- Among teenagers, nineteen percent are unable to bathe themselves.
- Thirty-six percent of those requiring mental health care are not receiving it.
- Seventy-four percent of guardians reporting a need for respite care are not receiving it.
- A quarter of those needing disability-specific transportation assistance are not receiving it.
- Their average total family income from all sources is $1,818 a month.
In short, Kristof, writing for the mighty New York Times, has created a column that is little more than unsupported drivel. He bases his argument for the ending of one of the few programs that helps the severely underpriviliged in this country on no evidence whatsoever, and characterizes those he apparently wants to help in incredibly patronizing and romantic tones that erase their agency. The fact that this man has such a respected voice in our national press, and that with this kind of blatant disregard for facts and for the very people he reports on, is shameful. And frankly, to call Kristof or the New York Times as a whole “liberal” any more is simply laughable.
Rather than simply leave on a depressing note on how the corporate media is out of touch and does not serve the people, we should take this column as a teaching moment. This piece shouldn’t be shunted into the background; rather, it should be used as a primary document to instruct others on what privilege and blatant disregard for those less fortunate looks like. Here, we see that misinformation about and disdain for the voiceless is very much alive and well, even among supposedly left wing people. Classism is not a right wing phenomenon, and we must remember, with this column as Exhibit A, to remain vigilantly skeptical, especially among those who might seem to be our allies.
One, two, three, four, I declare a class war.