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An Argumentative Analysis of: Profiting from a Child’s Illiteracy

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An Argumentative Analysis of: Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy By: Kristof Nicholas
Christopher Corder
Baker College of Muskegon

Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy
Supplemental Security Income (S.S.I.) benefits for minors is a national governmentally funded program for disabled children. S.S.I is for helping the families of children with disabilities. It helps manage the stresses of financial burdens that come with children who have special needs. Nicholas Kristof states that “America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.” (Kristof, 2012) Nicholas Kristof believes that people become dependent on S.S.I and enable their children to become illiterate in order to maintain the use of S.S.I. Kristof’s title and initial arguments lead you to believe he will thoroughly examine this claim. However, he provides insufficient evidence and makes assumptions that are inaccurate and unfair to the families who are receiving S.S.I. Furthermore, he weakens his argument by introducing other thesis statements later in his paper. This distracts from and sometimes contradicts his initial thesis. Kristof begins with an interesting and potentially important statement that dependence on S.S.I. inadvertently perpetuates illiteracy, but he doesn’t ground his argument with clear evidence or maintain his focus.
Kristof states that poor parents in the Appalachian hills purposely pull children out of literacy program to increase their chances of qualifying for S.S.I. (Kristof, 2012) He provides some good quotes from people involved in literacy programs and education departments who say they have seen families do this. His sources sound credible. Billie Oaks, who runs a literacy program in Breahitt County said, “The kids get taken out of the program because the parents are going to lose the check. It’s heartbreaking.” (Billie Oaks as cited in Kristof, 2012) Oak seems to know and care about these families. Yet the view presented is biased. Kristof does not ask any of the families involved their point of view. “Most startling, Kristof never found any actual parents who’d pulled their children from literacy classes. Instead, his story relied entirely on the word of Billie Oaks”.(DeMause, 2013, Para. 8) Later in his paper, he does quote one young woman, but she dropped out of school because of drug addiction, not because her family tried to keep her illiterate. He ends up contradicting his main point. The girl said about her son, “I just want him (her son) to go to school. I want him to go to college and get out of this place.” (Ms. Hurley as cited in Kristof, 2012) She is in a literacy program. Her parents never read to her, so she reads to her son. Stating this does not mean that her parents deliberately kept her from learning to read when she was younger. There could have been numerous reasons why she was not read to as a child. Kristof did not ask. Without listening to both sides and obtaining the full stories that lead to the children being kept at home, he jumped to a conclusion regarding the given situation. His presumption was that parents thought it was best for children to stay illiterate, because the family may be able to claim a disability check. Kristof did a good job at involving pathos in his presumptions. However, he also illogically omitted the necessary information.
Kristof take a sand castle and makes it into a landslide. He takes a problem about a small sample of individuals and directs it towards families nationwide. Kristof takes his foundational argument from the idea of a connection between illiteracy and obtaining S.S.I. There was no further information presented regarding the connection of the two. The entire stance of the connection was based on personal quotes from different individuals. In order to strengthen his position Kristof should have presented hardened facts of the connection between illiteracy and S.S.I. Kristof expresses that “our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.” (Kristof, 2012) From this expression Kristof takes the argument in an entirely new directions.
Within Kristof’s argument he touches on a couple different negative consequences of antipoverty programs. Kristof implied that young people do not join the military as a route to escape a hard life, due to the ease of access to food stamps and disability checks. (Kristof, 2012) He also implied that the ease of access to these services deceases the rate of people getting married. (Kristof, 2012) Kristof did not explore either of these topics or support them with any substantiated facts. He also touches on the number of individuals receiving S.S.I has increased drastically throughout the last forty years. Kristof would of better supported his claim by providing statistical facts such as:
In 2011, SSA paid almost $50 billion in SSI benefits to about 8 million recipients, of which about $9.4 billion was paid to 1.3 million children. During the early and mid-1990s, the SSI program grew at an unprecedented rate for children due, in part, to legal developments that expanded program eligibility for children with mental impairments. For example, from the end of 1989 through 1996, the number of children receiving SSI benefits more than tripled from 265,000 to about 955,000. Since that time, the overall number of children receiving SSI benefits has continued to rise (Supplemental Security Income, 2012, Para. 4). The statistics provided would have grounded his argument and helped establish his credibility. He then continues explaining his point of view. His explanation for the increase in S.S.I. benefits is that “the disabilities it covers are fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation, where the diagnosis is less clear-cut.” (Kristof, 2012) There is no explanation given as to why these qualifying standards are “fuzzier” or his definition of “fuzzier.” I personally do not know what to make of the standards becoming “fuzzier” or what he meant by it. Kaufmann, 2012 states:
A child’s impairments must match a list of disabling conditions compiled by the Social Security Administration (SSA). Qualified medical professionals must submit evidence; statements by parents and teachers aren’t enough… Fewer than one in four children with disabilities received SSI as of August 2012—due to SSI’s means-test and strict disability standard (Para. 10-11).
By no means are the qualifications for S.S.I “fuzzy”. S.S.I. has strict guidelines that are written out by the Security Administration. Kristof then stubbles upon the number of children that go onto obtaining adult disability.
Nearly two-thirds of these children make the transition at age 18 into S.S.I. 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 (Kristof, 2012).
Kristof never explained in detail why the children were on disability in the first place. The children that he mentioned that go onto adult disability may very well need the assistance. The way the information is presented, children that receive the help are falsely seen as the problem. Kristof includes some specific data, but he jumps from one related topic to another without explaining the relevant connections between them. At the beginning of this paper, Kristof began with an interesting statement about a possible causal connection between poverty, dependence on S.S.I., and forced illiteracy. The first thing he needed to do in order to write a concrete paper involving his topic would be to stay on topic. Everything must lead back to his initial thesis. The connections between poverty, dependence on S.S.I., and illiteracy are crucial in order to make his argument whole. He needed to back all of his material with facts. Kristof could have used widely available data linking the lack of adequate education and being illiterate as factors keeping people in poverty. Establishing that link may have given him a stronger lead into the reverse condition of poverty keeping people illiterate. According to the Appalachian Poverty Project:
The poverty rates and illiteracy rates are very high. In McDowell County, WV, the poverty rate is 33% with 49.4% of the children living in poverty. Unemployment is over 30%. The number of disabled persons over the age of 5 is between 40% and 45%. The percentage of high school grads among folks age 25 and over is less than 50% (Appalachian Poverty, n.d, Para. 16)
If Kristof had found similar sources it would have validated his stance. Quotes from all sources and points of interest are needed to be used in the correct context. If he had maintained focus, backed everything up with fact, and acknowledged varied points of view, his testimony would have been clearer and stronger. The author’s scatter-shot approach, his use of one-sided quotes, and his lack of validating evidence creates an unconvincing argument. The idea that even a small number of parents may be keeping their children from learning to read is worth exploring in deeper detail. Kristof does the topic injustice by overextending the points touched on. He is unlikely to persuade others into believing his perspective concerning Social Security Income and illiteracy.

Appalachian Poverty - Appalachian Poverty Project. (n.d.). Appalachian Poverty - Appalachian Poverty Project. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from

DeMause, N. (2013, June 1). Disabled Are New Target for Charges of Cheating. FAIR. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from

Kaufmann, G. (2012, December 14). This Week in Poverty: Kristof's Swing and Miss. The Nation. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from

Kristof, N. (2012, December 8). Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy. The New York Times. Retrieved May 3, 2014, from

Supplemental Security Income: Better Management Oversight Needed for Children's Benefits. (2012, January 26). U.S. GAO -. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from…...

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