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Diane Mufson: 'Getting government check' is poor goal

Feb. 12, 2013 @ 11:20 PM

"What are you going to be when you grow up?" has been a frequent question for ages. Generations ago, typical responses for boys were "fireman, policeman or doctor." Girls traditionally picked "teacher, nurse or secretary," waiting for marriage and motherhood to outrank any job.

Then the world matured, new occupations mushroomed and gender no longer became the primary decision maker for employment. Astronauts and software developers became part of our brave new world of work.

But finding jobs in some parts of our country has been difficult. Rather than relocate or become entrepreneurs, some folks have found that long-term government support is a better option. The problem with this, as noted in a recent article by Nicholas D. Kristof, is that good intentions of government programs are not always positive.

Mr. Kristof's report, "Profiting From a Child's Illiteracy," appeared in the New York Times. For those ready to say, "Oh, it's a liberal article," because of the source, you are partially right. Mr. Kristof writes from a liberal point of view, but this article isn't liberal and is depressing.

The article is datelined, Jackson, Ky., the eastern part of that state, which shares similar economic difficulties as our state. What the writer notes is that "Parents here in Appalachian hill country are pulling their children out of literacy classes ... they fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability." Melanie Stevens, a local Kentucky school district official lamented, "In second grade they have a dream. In seventh grade, they have a plan."

In my work with adolescents from this geographic region in the past three decades, I have encountered some of the same issues. Initially I was surprised by the response I sometimes received when asking teens a basic question about their future ambitions.

I was confused and asked for clarification after the first time I heard, "Get a check," in response to "What do you plan to do when you turn 18?" One 16-year-old looked at me in a strange way and explained as though I was out of touch with reality, "I'll get a check, like my Daddy does and my Papaw does. It's what you do."

There was no thought of a job or work. No one had set an example or given him encouragement to earn his way in the world. Another adolescent explained that he would get a check because he would have a "bad back." Asked how he knew that he'd have back trouble, he responded that "It happened to everyone in my family," and so it would happen to him.

At first I believed these incidents were rarities. I thought it was just one locality or an economic downturn that led to planned unemployment. Then I learned I was wrong.

In reality every community has a very small group of children who are so physically or mentally challenged that they are unlikely to be successful in the workforce. They need support; they are not the problem. We must be concerned about the much greater number of children whose parents work to keep them uneducated or unmotivated, resulting in lifelong governmental dependency and "getting a check."

Over the years, government programs set up to help lift our area and many others like it out of poverty have had some positive benefits. Yet, there is enough evidence to remind us that the good intentions of some government programs have not had the desired results.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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