No. 909



What are you passionate about? As you think about this question a moment, I can tell you that I am passionate about literacy. The reason I know that I am passionate about literacy is that I get mad when I read about someone who is intentionally keeping their child from learning to read for their own selfish gain.
Not to keep you in the dark, here is what I am talking about. A while back a friend sent me a Dec. 7, 2012, article written by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, titled “Profiting from a Child’s Illiteracy.” In this article Mr. Kristof told a true story about parents in rural, very poor Appalachian hill country who receive Supplemental Security Income (S.S.I.) checks for having an intellectual disability, and they intentionally pull their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear if their kids learn to read, they may lose their monthly check. Many people who live in hillside homes in this part of the nation are poor and desperate. A $698 monthly check from the S.S.I. program goes a long way, and the checks continue until the child turns 18.
Since literacy is the foundation for success in our nation, you think about that for a moment. As the old saying goes, “You think education is expensive, just try ignorance for a while.” Apparently Mr. Kristof is a kind of roving writer or reporter, similar to Charles Kuralt, who does much of his research face-to-face, rather than taking it from second-hand sources. For this article he traveled to Breathitt County, a poor part of Kentucky, and interviewed those he has written about. To read his article was heartbreaking to say the least.
In one case he told about Anastasia McCormick, who said her $500 car had just broken down and she had to walk two miles each day to her job at a pizza restaurant. He did not say whether or not she was a single mom but left the impression that she was. At any rate, it’s going to get harder because she’s pregnant with twins, due in April. At some point, she won’t be able to hold that job anymore, and then she will have trouble paying the bills. She has rented a washer and dryer, but she’s behind in payments and they may soon be hauled back. “I got a ‘discontinue’ notice on the electric,” she added, “but you get a month to pay up.” Life is like that for her, a roller coaster partly of her own making.
And here is the real tragedy: About four decades ago, most of the children S.S.I. covered had severe physical or mental retardation that made it difficult for parents to hold jobs -- about one percent of all poor children. But now 55 percent of the disabilities it covers are fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation, where the diagnosis is less clear-cut. More than 1.2 million children across America – a full 8 percent of all low-income children – are now enrolled in S.S.I. as disabled, at an annual cost of more than $9 billion.
As I thought about this sad set of circumstances, I realized that, like most problems, there is a solution. At least what I am going to say is worth thinking about. Just reverse the qualifications for mentally disabled parents to receive a check. Why not make a small reduction in the monthly check unless the child learns to read. In other words, change the incentive or motivation to encourage success for the child, rather than to continue to insure that he or she fails. I have contended for a long time that most people are a lot smarter than we give them credit for being. But keeping a child from learning to read is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Davidson is a public speaker and syndicated columnist. You may contact him at 2 Bentley Drive, Conway, AR 72034. To begin a bookcase literacy project visit You won’t go wrong helping a needy child.)