Children's Crusade

Armed with business rhetoric and dubious "facts," the Children's Defense Fund has become the most potent lobbyist for a renewed welfare state.


America's welfare state is under assault. Over the last 25 years, the federal, state, and local governments have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a host of programs—ranging from giveaways, like Aid to Families with Dependent Children, to education and training services—to eradicate poverty. They failed. The public knows it. Spending on these programs continues to increase, but at lower rates.

And some governors, such as Michigan's John Engler, are taking the previously unthinkable step of dropping people from the welfare rolls altogether. Engler pushed 80,000 people off the dole, saving $240 million in funding for the state's general assistance program. Other governors are paring back and putting conditions on welfare spending and other social programs.

But never fear. The defenders of America's great experiment in social engineering, despite occasionally apoplectic public comments, have a plan to save the welfare state. It's called "preventive government." Instead of focusing on personal entitlements to public money, the idea is for policy makers to focus on investment, on spending dollars now to save public money in the future.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson of California, for example, has made national headlines with a tough welfare-reform proposal—but he is among the strongest supporters of expanded early education and nutrition programs for poor children. On the campaign trail, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the nominal head of the Democratic center, calls for a "people-based economics," in which government invests heavily in education and training programs to promote employment and economic growth.

Preventive government owes its trendiness not to policy innovation but to packaging. After a decade or more of Reaganism's political success, welfare-staters have learned their lesson. Talk about "investing in the future" instead of "waging war on poverty." Promise long-term budgetary savings rather than big-government spending. And don't forget the main beneficiaries of the touted investment programs—children and youth, hardly as easy to demonize as shiftless beggars or welfare queens.

The Washington-based Children's Defense Fund (CDF) is a progenitor and notably successful proponent of the preventive-government message. Not coincidentally, Clinton's wife, Hillary, chairs the CDF board of directors. With a flurry of publications, congressional testimony, and slick salesmanship, CDF has laid the groundwork for a massive expansion of government in the 1990s—into preschool education, day care, housing, health care. And while the intentions and values of like-minded (that is, left-minded) organizations must endure intensive scrutiny, CDF escapes it.

After all, the group exists solely to provide, as its mission statement intones, "a strong and effective voice for the children of America who cannot vote, lobby, or speak for themselves." Who can be against that? Protected by its shield of piety from the slings and arrows of skepticism, CDF is advancing an agenda indistinguishable from the 1960s War on Poverty.

That's not surprising. Marian Wright Edelman, who founded CDF in 1973, had been a staff attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in the 1960s while her husband, Peter, had been an adviser to Sen. Robert Kennedy. Her plan for CDF was to defend and expand the programs begun during the Johnson era—such as Head Start and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutritional supplement program—with an intensive Washington lobbying effort. From the start, what set CDF apart from other organizations pushing the same agenda was a focus on compiling and distributing facts and statistics; by the mid 1980s, CDF was publishing some 2,000 pages a year.

That changed the nature of the welfare debate. Until CDF hit its stride in the late 1970s and early 1980s, say several longtime congressional staffers, Capitol Hill debates on social policy often featured shrill moral sentiment or crude class warfare appeals. Even in the early 1980s, one Republican staff member says, "anecdotes pretty much drove policy." An advocate for a particular program would testify about how that program helped a certain child or group of children, and then proclaim that "if it can work here, it can work everywhere for everyone." But now, the staffer continues, social-policy debates exude "an air of pseudo-sophistication."

To a large extent, CDF and other liberal think tanks are trying to mimic the success of conservative, free-market think tanks in the early 1980s. During that golden age, facts and figures from the American Enterprise Institute helped determine the direction of the deregulation-minded Reagan Administration. The conservative Heritage Foundation showed how powerful it can be to arm policy makers with brief, digestible nuggets of data and wisdom. In the arena of intellectual debate, in which participants read editorial pages and policy journals and attend Capitol Hill conferences, free-marketeers seized the right side of a credibility gap. They had numbers and facts, while big-government boosters had mostly anecdotes and diatribes.

It was only a matter of time before the left caught on. They formed their own versions of Heritage and AEI. So far the Children's Defense Fund, as an early outpost of retaliation against Reaganite conservatism, has had the most success in legitimizing a statistical read of American society that justifies more government social programs. For example, CDF's annual reports, variously called A Children's Defense Budget or State of the Children, have become a ready source of factoids for Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and The Washington Post—not to mention congressional policy makers. "[Marian Wright] Edelman's effectiveness depends as much on her adroit use of statistics as on moral suasion," Time magazine stated in a fawning profile.

Perhaps CDF's most successful factoid touts the Head Start program: Every dollar spent on "quality preschool education" saves $4.75 in future economic, education, welfare, and crime costs. Virtually every governor's press secretary in the United States knows that one by heart. President Bush certainly believes it, having called for a record $600-million increase in the program this year. Head Start's long-term efficacy is taken for granted by journalists and legislators across the country.

As it turns out, CDF has done a masterful job of promoting this statistic, since it comes from only one study of one program in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The vast majority of Head Start studies (and there have been many) have focused on the immediate effects of the program on the performance of poor children in school. Only a few have dealt with longterm social impact, and only one project—the Perry Preschool Program in Ypsilanti—has ever been the subject of a full-fledged cost-benefit analysis, yielding the famous "$1.00 saves $4.75" equation.

It gets worse. The Perry program, plus a couple of other less-researched ones, constitute the bulk of evidence for the "success" of Head Start. But they aren't really Head Start programs at all.

"These intervention programs were conducted under ideal circumstances," writes Ron Haskins, a staff member of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, in an article for the American Psychologist that has been much circulated on the Hill. "[These programs] had skilled researchers, capable staffs with lots of training, ample budgets.…It seems unwise to claim that the benefits produced by such exemplary programs would necessarily be produced by ordinary preschool programs conducted in communities across the United States."

Haskins notes that the Perry program had a very high rate of parental involvement, including regular staff visits to participating children's homes. In reality, only about 9 percent of Head Start parents volunteer even one day a week in the program, according to a national parent involvement study, and Head Start staff rarely visit homes.

A growing number of child-development researchers are stepping forward to decry the Head Start "investment" hype. A skeptical Science magazine article in 1990 quoted Russell Gersten of the University of Oregon as saying that early intervention research "is not a very intellectually rigorous field" and has been easily politicized, resulting in "mushy findings" such as the long-term effects of early-childhood education. In the same article, developmental psychologist Sandra Scarr of the University of Virginia says: "There is quite a mystique in our culture about the importance of early intervention," yet "there is no evidence [for it] whatever."

As early as 1969, independent research indicated that Head Start had failed in its primary mission: to inoculate preschool children against the ravages of poverty or neglect they might encounter later in life. Studies found that boosts in I.Q. and other measures quickly wore off by about the third grade. But these findings were ignored or dismissed by Head Start defenders, who claimed the research results merely proved the need for a broader program lasting throughout elementary grades. Even this defense ignores the relevant research.

In a recently released study, researcher J. S. Fuerst of Loyola University traced the performance of 684 Chicago kids who attended not only two years of preschool but also two to seven additional years during elementary school of what Fuerst calls "Head Start to the fourth power." While his initial study—published in 1974 when most of the students were ages 13 and under—found significant reading and math gains, his new study told a different story. Only 62 percent of the participating students graduated from high school, compared to the national average of about 80 percent. The graduation rate had improved relative to a poor-child control group, but nevertheless the long-term impact of the intensive Chicago program had been disappointing.

Fuerst himself contends that this only proves the need for special education programs lasting up to nine years—which shatters the notion that a small investment early heads off bigger costs down the road. It also begs an obvious question: Why not fix the school system itself, rather than devise new and expensive federal supplements to it?

Indeed, the Children's Defense Fund implicitly grants that Head Start's long-term benefits are exaggerated by proposing a broad slate of other programs directed toward "at-risk" children that last until adulthood. "The growth and change that occur in youngsters between the ages of 10 and 17," states one CDF publication, "are greater than in any other phase of life except infancy"—a statement that dulls the luster of the Head Start silver bullet.

And just as in the case of Head Start, many of the programs CDF touts for older children have virtually no cost-benefit evidence at all. CDF publications constantly fudge the difference between true cost-benefit studies and informal, invalid comparisons. For example, the State of America's Children 1991 report supplies this factoid: "We can choose to spend $850 for one year of compensatory education or $4,000 for the cost of a single repeated grade."

That simple equation ignores an obvious question. How many children who don't get compensatory education (such as the federal Chapter 1 program, which provides special classes and tutoring for poor kids) will repeat a grade? Until you know that, you can't compare costs and benefits.

I asked CDF for quantification of this compensatory-education factoid. A CDF staffer referred me to a 1990 report by the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families titled Opportunities for Success. In that report, there are precisely five "studies" listed to substantiate cost-benefit claims for compensatory education. Of these, only one is actually a study; while it estimates achievement success for participating students as well as the cost to society when students fail to graduate, it makes no direct connection between the two.

The second "study" is published testimony by five corporate CEOs who "refer to the Chapter 1 program as an investment," the abstract cheerfully reports. The third citation is a 1987 CDF report, which does not provide a cost-benefit study. The fourth is a digest of education statistics that merely provides the costs of compensatory education and of repeating a grade. And the fifth citation is a quote from a book by the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, which starts as follows: "When compensatory education prevents one student's repeating a grade, we can provide compensatory education to five other students at no cost." That states the problem backwards. We want to know whether funding compensatory education prevents students from repeating a grade, not whether preventing students from repeating a grade can help fund compensatory education.

In fact, despite the supple, business-sounding rhetoric of preventive government, CDF and its allies really favor a big-spending, federally controlled and regulated War on Poverty. Edelman isn't subtle. "One of the most corrosive lies we face is the pervasive argument that 'nothing works,' the War on Poverty failed, social programs don't succeed," she wrote in a Mother Jones article last year. Much of CDF's so-called Children's Defense Budget is really standard liberalism and welfare statism: Increase spending on food stamps and AFDC; raise the minimum wage to $5.00 an hour; establish national health insurance; expand the federal role in funding education (while opposing parental choice of schools); and boost spending for public-owned and subsidized housing, and so on. Its 1991 report has a chapter called "Housing and Homelessness" that never mentions the word regulation. The child-care chapter argues for more of it, despite the inescapable tradeoff with cost and availability (CDF would solve that problem by, you guessed it, spending more federal money) and the developmental risks involved in placing young children in formal day-care centers.

CDF acts as if the last decade or more of research into these issues didn't happen. Robert Rector, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told me of one instance when he approached a CDF staff member after her presentation on the advantages of formal day care over home-based care. He asked her how she responded to the well-documented risks associated with cytomegalovirus, a virus children in day-care centers can contract and transmit to their pregnant mothers, inducing birth defects. "What's cytomegalovirus?" she replied.

CDF's use and misuse of government statistics and research findings would surprise no one familiar with the process of creating legislation on Capitol Hill. Testimony is routinely passed off as research. Unpublished papers are given the same weight as peer-reviewed papers (as in the environmental scare of the week). But the difference, again, between the way most organizations are viewed and the public image of CDF is that the latter cultivates an aura of earnest compassion for children—which, no doubt, Marian Wright Edelman and her staff do share.

In practice, however, their policy prescriptions form the core of basic liberalism, with a sheen of "penny wise, pound foolish" rhetoric to make traditional big government palatable. Their proposals actually favor certain constituencies of adults—day-care center operators, teachers' unions, housing-authority employees, and a legion of federal, state, and local employees whose livelihoods depend on continued and expanded federal spending.

No one doubts that the plight of America's children is serious, that single-parent families are ballooning, that raising children in an atmosphere of crime, drugs, and ignorance is difficult. But despite the claims of CDF and other devotees of preventive government, there is no silver bullet that government can fire to solve these problems. Even when certain "early intervention" programs prove successful, as the Perry Preschool Program did, there is no evidence to support the assumption that these unique, idiosyncratic programs can be replicated nationwide by a federal government that can't deliver the mail on time.

The issue has never been whether good nutrition, intellectual stimulation, and parent-education efforts are good things. The issue is whether the government can provide them more effectively and efficiently than extended families, philanthropy, charities, churches, and the private market for preschool care and education can. On that question, the preventive-government crowd, so eager to save big government from public skepticism and the budget ax, is silent.

Contributing Editor John Hood is editor of Carolina Journal and a columnist for Spectator (N.C.) magazine.