Head Start and Other Federal Failures

No quantity of stirring words or noble intentions can justify expensive measures that leave little trace behind.


When the government shutdown began on Oct. 1, it forced the closing of Head Start facilities in several states, stopping educational services for thousands of low-income kids. So heart-rending was this spectacle that a pair of Texas philanthropists gave $10 million to keep the programs going.

Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas appeared at a rally of parents protesting the Head Start closures, holding up a child's chair and declaring, "Here is the empty chair of the next astronaut. Here is the empty chair of a captain in the United States military."

House Republicans were not about to be accused of depriving poor children. They approved a measure to provide funding for Head Start, with one member attesting, "As we work our way out of this government shutdown mess, we shouldn't let some of our most vulnerable citizens, low-income children with no recourse, suffer."

That was not good enough for President Barack Obama, who prevailed in his insistence that the House agree to fund the government across the board through Jan. 15. Amid the bitter quarrel, no one bothered to ask whether Head Start is actually serving the purposes that justify its budget.

Maybe that's because they know the answer is no but aren't willing to face being denounced for cruelty to disadvantaged tots. For decades, Head Start has consistently disappointed anyone who expected it to make a real difference in the fortunes of the poor.

A 2010 study by the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that though there were modest benefits to participating kids, they soon evaporated. "The benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by first grade for the program population as a whole," it admitted. "For 3-year-olds, there are few sustained benefits."

A federal social program that burns though billions of dollars, year in and year out, despite showing scant value to those it's supposed to help? That may sound like a regrettable anomaly. In fact, as David Muhlhausen documents in his new book, Do Federal Social Programs Work? (Praeger), it's pretty much the norm.

The author, a longtime scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, appears to have reviewed every study of these undertakings, as evidenced in 47 pages of footnotes. The overwhelming majority, he finds, don't accomplish anything resembling their stated mission, and some even "produce harmful outcomes."

The dismal results might be excused as the price of showing concern for people in genuine need, if not for the fact that these efforts cost so much—$443 billion in 2011, exceeding 3 percent of gross domestic product.

This book, whose importance is inverse to its likely readership, excludes Social Security, unemployment insurance and veterans' benefits because they must be earned through work. Muhlhausen concentrates on the Great Society programs enacted in the 1960s under President Lyndon B. Johnson, which were meant to "eradicate the fundamental causes of poverty by providing opportunity to the poor" and "ultimately make redistribution unnecessary." So far, you may have noticed, they have accomplished neither objective.

There was a sound idea behind LBJ's approach, namely that the way to help the disadvantaged was to give them the tools to become prosperous. Head Start would confer a boost in learning that would have a permanent payoff. The Job Corps would equip them with the skills to earn good wages. Upward Bound would prepare them for college. But the federal government didn't really know how to do these things.

Anything coming out of Heritage will be dismissed by critics as right-wing propaganda, but Muhlhausen backs up his findings with masses of data. He also finds comparable results for Republican social programs aimed at reducing teen sexual activity and strengthening families. His overall conclusions, in any case, are not particularly novel or radical.

Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the liberal Brookings Institution's Center on Children and Families, wrote in 2010 that in the 10 most rigorous assessments of individual federal social programs, "nine of these evaluations found weak or no positive effects." When I contacted Ron Haskins, a welfare expert also at Brookings, he cited a few successful ventures but said, "I generally agree that social programs do not work."

No quantity of stirring words or noble intentions can justify expensive measures that leave little trace behind. Our elected officials generally agree that withholding money from social programs shortchanges the poor. They fail to notice that for the most part, providing money has the same effect.