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Home Publications Blogs CEPR Blog More Bad Mommies in Poverty From Nick Kristof

More Bad Mommies in Poverty From Nick Kristof

Monday, 02 December 2013 13:18

In his Thanksgiving Day column, Nick Kristof highlights Bad Mommies in Povertyincluding:

  1. Alcoholic Mommy of preschooler;
  2. Teenage Mommy who “drinks so much during pregnancy that her child is born with fetal alcohol effects”; and
  3. Abusive, Stressed-Out Single Mommy “who doesn’t read to her children and slaps them more than she hugs them.”

Three Bad Mommies in Poverty, zero good ones, pretty impressive in a Thanksgiving Day column titled “Where is the Love?”

As part of their Let’s Lose the Labels campaign, Gingerbread UK, an advocacy group for single parent families in the United Kingdom, suggest that media follow three basic guidelines:

  1. avoid unwarranted mentions of single parenthood;
  2. avoid stereotypical language that doesn’t reflect the reality of single-parents’ lives; and
  3. tell the whole story by providing context and getting facts straight.

Kristof's latest violates all three, a hat trick!

Which prompts me to ask: what is it with Nick Kristof and Bad Mommies in Poverty?

During last year’s holiday season, Kristof claimed that lots of Bad Mommies in Poverty were “profiting from their child’s illiteracy”—intentionally keeping their children from learning to read because they think it will make them more likely be found disabled and eligible for Supplemental Security Income. He was subsequently rebuked by the NYT’s public editor who noted that “some of the column’s assertions were based on too little direct evidence...” and that Kristoff “did not talk to the primary sources, the parents of poor and developmentally disabled children.”

I have no problem with acknowledging that "some people in poverty do suffer in part because of irresponsible behavior." But Kristof should also acknowledge that such behavior isn't at all limited to people with very low incomes. For example, according to the CDC, college-educated women are as likely to binge drink during pregnancy as women with only a high school diploma or less. More generally, alcohol use and certain measures of hazardous use of alcohol are positively related to income, that is, they're actually more common at higher income levels than at low ones.

Very few low-income mothers are abusive and unloving, binge drink during pregnancy, or want to keep their children illiterate, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Kristof.

In his defense, I imagine Kristof would argue that he’s trying to convince Tea Partiers to support food stamps and pre-K, and therefore needs to validate their stereotypes about Bad Mommies in Poverty to get them to feel empathy for Bad Mommies' children. But the stereotypes about working-class parents that Mr. Kristof reiterates are more likely to harden negative attitudes and conservatives’ opposition to public solutions than to produce compassionate responses and support for sensible policies. As Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens, Stanford’s Shanto Iyengar, and others have shown, unrepresentative and stereotypical portrayals of low-income people in the media likely undermine public support for means-tested programs. And, as Christian Marie Bell’s history of universal pre-K in Oklahoma suggests, the propagation of stereotypes about Bad Mommies in Poverty had little to with its passage.  

Tags: children | inequality | media | poverty | women | working class

Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Lmcolby, December 03, 2013 7:19
Don't you think you're missing the larger point Kristof was trying to make? Not to mention his intent, which was a rallying cry for compassion in this time of blaming and fear mongering? I agree with your point about stereotyping the poor, but Kristof has done more to bring much needed attention to the cause of poverty and human rights abuses, particularly of women and children, than possibly any other NY Time columnist in recent years. He should be applauded for that, then gently educated about the potential effect of his examples about mothers in poverty.
written by Shawn, December 03, 2013 1:44

I know Kristof was trying persuade the unpersuadable, as I noted in my piece. But I don't think that should excuse his repeated use of inexcusable stereotypes. I'll leave it to you and others to try the gentle education approach with him. More generally, when it comes to domestic poverty, I applaud the work of NYT columnists like Charles Blow and Paul Krugman, but think Nick Kristof has done considerably more harm than good.

written by Kat, December 03, 2013 5:37
Well, I appreciate the spotlight on Kristof. I think he is part of the problem in his willful blindness to larger economic forces at work. He confuses correlation with causation and the only anti poverty initiatives he endorses only address symptoms of poverty (despite what he says.) So thanks. I think he is kind of dangerous considering his readership.
written by Kat, December 03, 2013 5:41
Plus, paternalism much?
written by watermelonpunch, December 06, 2013 9:54

Whoa, I'd missed this.

I hardly think perpetuating stereotypes by bringing them up over & over again is hardly the way to curb the profound lack of empathy exhibited in the attitudes & comments of various people.

And yeah, for the most part I see a chicken & egg problem arise in most cases of unfortunate examples of stereotypes... Like the alcoholic mother in poverty... Who's to say poverty didn't contribute to her alcoholism, and had she been born into affluence, perhaps her alcoholism either wouldn't exist, or wouldn't be something that would be seen as harmful to her children or others.
That's just one example.

I fear that we're becoming a culture where everybody just stands around pointing the fingers at each other, pointing out what other people are doing.
You know, kind of like the testimonies in the Congressional Hearings after the mortgage crisis & banks failings. *rolls eyes*

I remember some lady saying this once, and it both made so much sense, and annoyed me because it was clearly meant to rhyme, but doesn't really. ;o) But I did remember it...

Blame & shame don't lead to change.

Not quality poetry. But so true.
written by watermelonpunch, December 06, 2013 10:03

Oh, but I will give Kristof credit for the last sentence:

And compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but a mark of civilization.

The thing is, his opinion column for Thanksgiving would've been infinitely better if it had been limited to just that one sentence.

Compassion isn't a sign of weakness, but a mark of civilization.

Enough said.

Full stop.

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