More Bad Mommies in Poverty From Nick Kristof

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Written by Shawn Fremstad   
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