Jackson, Kentucky: This is what poverty sometimes looks like in the United States: 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.
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."
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.
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.
Anti-poverty programs also discourage marriage: In a means-tested program like SSI, a woman raising a child may receive a bigger check if she refrains from marrying that hard-working guy she likes. Yet marriage is one of the best forces to blunt poverty. In married couple households only one child in 10 grows up in poverty, while almost half do in single-mother households.
Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it's best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month.
"One of the ways you get on this program is having problems in school," notes Richard V. Burkhauser, a Cornell University economist who co-wrote a book last year about these disability programs. "If you do better in school, you threaten the income of the parents. It's a terrible incentive."
About four decades ago, most of the children SSI covered had severe physical handicaps or mental retardation that made it difficult for parents to hold jobs - about 1 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 the US - a full 8 percent of all low-income children - are now enrolled in SSI as disabled, at an annual cost of more than $9 billion.
That is a burden on taxpayers, of course, but it can be even worse for children whose families have a huge stake in their failing in school. Those kids may never recover: 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 - and that's the outcome of a program intended to fight poverty.
There's no doubt that some families with seriously disabled children receive a lifeline from SSI. But the bottom line is that we shouldn't try to fight poverty with a program that sometimes perpetuates it.
A local school district official, Melanie Stevens, puts it this way: "The greatest challenge we face as educators is how to break that dependency on government. In second grade, they have a dream. In seventh grade, they have a plan."
There's a danger in drawing too firm conclusions about an issue - fighting poverty - that is as complex as human beings themselves. I'm no expert on domestic poverty. But for me, a tentative lesson from the field is that while we need safety nets, the focus should be instead on creating opportunity - and, still more difficult, on creating an environment that leads people to seize opportunities.
To see what that might mean, I tagged along with Save the Children, the aid group we tend to think of as active in Sudan or Somalia. It's also in the opportunity business right here in the United States, in places like the mobile home of Britny Hurley - and it provides a model of what does work.
Hurley, 19, is amiable and speaks quickly with a strong hill accent, so that at times I had trouble understanding her. Hurley says that she was raped by a family member when she was 12, and that another family member then introduced her to narcotics. She became an addict, she says, mostly to prescription painkillers that are widely trafficked here.
Equipped with a crackling intelligence, Hurley once aspired to be a doctor. But her addictions and a rebellious nature got her kicked out of high school, and at 16 she became engaged to a boyfriend and soon had his baby.
Yet there are ways of breaking this cycle. That's what Save the Children is doing here, working with children while they're still malleable, and it's an approach that should be a centerpiece of the country's anti-poverty program. Almost anytime the question is poverty, the answer is children.
Save the Children trains community members to make home visits to at-risk moms like Hurley, and help nurture the skills they need in the world's toughest job: parenting. These visits begin in pregnancy and continue until the child is 3 years old.
I followed Courtney Trent, 22, one of these early childhood coordinators, as she visited a series of houses. She encourages the mothers (and the fathers, if they're around) to read to the children, tell stories, talk to them, hug them. If the parents can't read, then Trent encourages them to flip the pages on picture books and talk about what they see.
Trent brings a few books on each visit, and takes back the ones she had left the previous time. Many of the homes she visits don't own a single children's book.
She sat on the floor in Hurley's living room, pulled a book out of her bag, and encouraged her to read to her 20-month-old son, Landon. Hurley said that she was never read to as a child, but she was determined to change the pattern.
"I just want him to go to school," she said of Landon. "I want him to go to college and get out of this place." Hurley said she was clean of drugs, working full time at a Wendy's, and hoping to go back to school to become a nurse. I'd bet on her - and on Landon.
"When kids come to us through this program and come here, we can see a big difference," Ron Combs, the principal at Lyndon B. Johnson Elementary School here, told me. 'They're really ready to go. Otherwise, we have kids so far behind that they struggle to catch up.
"By second or third grade, you have a pretty good feeling about who's going to drop out," he added.
A group of teachers were in the room, and they all nodded. Wayne Sizemore, director of special education in Breathitt County, puts it this way: "The earlier we can get them, the better. It's like building a foundation for a house."
I don't want to suggest that the country's anti-poverty programs are a total failure. On the contrary, they are making a significant difference. Nearly all homes here in the Appalachian hill country now have electricity and running water, and people aren't starving.
Our political system has created a particularly robust safety net for the elderly, focused on Social Security and Medicare - because the elderly vote. This safety net has brought down the poverty rate among the elderly from about 35 percent in 1959 to under 9 percent today.
Because kids don't have a political voice, they have been neglected - and have replaced the elderly as the most impoverished age group in our country. Today, 22 percent of children live below the poverty line.
Of US families living in poverty today, eight out of 10 have air conditioning, and a majority have a washing machine and dryer. Nearly all have microwave ovens. What they don't have is hope. You see it here in the town of Jackson, in the teenage girls hanging out by the bridge over the north fork of the Kentucky River, seeking to trade their bodies for prescription painkillers or methamphetamines.
A growing body of careful research suggests that the most effective strategy is to work early on children and education, and to try to encourage and sustain marriage. Bravo to Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio for backing a landmark initiative to add one-eighth of 1 percent to the local sales tax to finance a prekindergarten program. Early interventions are not a silver bullet, and even programs that succeed as experiments often fall short when scaled up. But we end up paying for poverty one way or another, and early childhood education is far cheaper than adult incarceration. I hope that the budget negotiations in Washington may offer us a chance to take money from SSI and invest in early childhood initiatives instead. One reason anti-poverty initiatives don't get traction in the US is that the issue is simply invisible.
"People don't want to talk about poverty in America," Mark Shriver, who runs the domestic programs of Save the Children, noted as we drove through Kentucky. "We talk more about poverty in Africa than we do about poverty in America."
Indeed, in the 2012 election campaign, poverty was barely mentioned. A study by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal watchdog organization, found substantive discussion of poverty in just 0.2 percent of campaign news reports.
Look, there are no magic wands, and helping people is hard. One woman I met, Anastasia McCormick, told me that her $500 car had just broken down and she had to walk two miles each way to her job at a pizza restaurant. That's going to get harder because she's pregnant with twins, due in April.
At some point, McCormick won't be able to hold that job anymore, and then she'll 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.
I don't want to write anybody off, but I admit that efforts to help McCormick may end with a mixed record. But those twin boys she's carrying? There's time to transform their lives, and they - and millions like them - should be a national priority. They're too small to fail.
© 2012, The New York Times News Service