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….
 
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.
 
 
In Hale County, Alabama, 1 in 4 working-age adults is on disability. On the day government checks come in every month, banks stay open late, Main Street fills up with cars, and anybody looking to unload an old TV or armchair has a yard sale.
 
Sonny Ryan, a retired judge in town, didn’t hear disability cases in his courtroom. But the subject came up often. He described one exchange he had with a man who was on disability but looked healthy.
"Just out of curiosity, what is your disability?" the judge asked from the bench.
 
"I have high blood pressure," the man said.
 
"So do I," the judge said. "What else?"
 
"I have diabetes."
 
"So do I."
 
There’s no diagnosis called disability. You don’t go to the doctor and the doctor says, "We’ve run the tests and it looks like you have disability." It’s squishy enough that you can end up with one person with high blood pressure who is labeled disabled and another who is not.
 
But the most poignant tale is similar to the one highlighted by Kristof: the story of a 10 year boy named Jahleel:
 
Let's imagine that happens. Jahleel starts doing better in school, overcomes some of his disabilities. He doesn't need the disability program anymore. That would seem to be great for everyone, except for one thing: It would threaten his family's livelihood. Jahleel's family primarily survives off the monthly $700 check they get for his disability.
 
Jahleel's mom wants him to do well in school. That is absolutely clear. But her livelihood depends on Jahleel struggling in school. This tension only increases as kids get older. One mother told me her teenage son wanted to work, but she didn't want him to get a job because if he did, the family would lose its disability check.
 
And here is the epitaph:
 
Kids should be encouraged to go to school. Kids should want to do well in school. Parents should want their kids to do well in school. Kids should be confident their parents can provide for them regardless of how they do in school. Kids should become more and more independent as they grow older and hopefully be able to support themselves at around age 18.
 
The disability program stands in opposition to every one of these aims.
 
Even so, I’m not naïve enough to believe that Democrat politicians will be among the first to take on this soul-crushing boondoggle; and it doesn’t take much imagination to envision the backlash against any conservative who takes on a program that is supposed to be "for the children."
 
But it’s a start.