Government failure

Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes: The Story of Government

Programs that don't work as intended ought to be cut.


If we judged everything by intentions rather than results, the world would be a strange place indeed. Steve never calls his mother on her birthday, but he always means to, so isn't he a wonderful son?

That goes for government as well: If we judged laws only according to what their sponsors intended, then every law and every program that has ever been enacted has been an unqualified success. After all, nobody intends for things to go wrong—right?

And yet things do go wrong. The news is full of examples.

Take civil asset forfeiture, one particularly dubious form of which Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviving. The intention behind civil asset forfeiture—a practice in which the government seizes the property of suspected criminals—is brilliant: Confiscate the ill-gotten gains, auction them off, and then use the proceeds to finance investments in law enforcement. Using criminals' own resources against them: It's law enforcement jiu-jitsu!

It's also an unmitigated disaster. In practice, giving police officers a financial incentive to seize people's property without having to bring any criminal charges against them is a recipe for wanton abuse. Thousands of innocent Americans have been robbed at the hands of the very people who are supposed to be protecting them. The problem has grown beyond repeated congressional efforts to contain it. It has even grown so bad that two of the originators behind the idea have called for an end to forfeiture because "government self-interest corrupted a crime-fighting tool into an evil."

Not every case is quite so extreme. But many are still bad enough. Consider a Kentucky program aimed at reviving poor rural areas by retraining workers to become computer programmers. The effort to breathe new life into the coalfields was part of President Obama's TechHire Initiative, and was conducted in concert with the Appalachian Regional Commission.

According to a report from The Daily Signal, the job-training program was intended to turn out 200 skilled workers who could write code for smartphone apps and similar high-tech ventures. But the effort has fallen short: After $1.6 million, only 17 program participants have landed tech jobs. Some are quite happy with where they landed, but others who went through the program are not: "I am now in a job that has absolutely nothing to do with programming," says one.

A spokesman for the company contracted to provide the training says the company isn't to blame: There were "more challenges than expected when it came to personal development and growth," she said, citing a lack of "basic business environment skills" such as personal attire and communication.

But once you set aside the question of whether former coal miners clean up nicely, there's still the grim fact that a federal program to help communities partake in the 21st century economy could scare up fewer than 20 jobs. That's swell for the individuals, but it's not going to bring an entire geographic region back to life. Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam—who has his own plans for reviving rural Virginia with "new-collar" jobs—might want to take note.

The Trump administration, which has proposed shutting down the Appalachian Regional Commission, also recently announced that it would be cutting $100 million in grants for teen pregnancy prevention. This promptly led to an epidemic of pearl-clutching at media outlets that think the surest cure for any problem is a tractor-trailer full of somebody else's money.

But as The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway pointed out, the programs funded by the grants are remarkably ineffective. The Department of Health and Human Services' own analysis found that many of them either (a) did not reduce rates of teenage sexual activity, unprotected sex, sex without birth control, or pregnancy or (b) reduced the rates only for a short while. In one case, girls who went through the funded program actually "reported becoming pregnant at a higher rate" than girls in a different program.

If the programs are not doing what they are being funded to do, then why continue to fund them?

Granted: Some—maybe even many—government programs do exactly what they are supposed to, and they do it well. But that is far from universally true. Two years ago, for instance, the Department of Labor released an analysis of the Re-Integration of Ex-Offenders (RExO) program, which is supposed to help former prison inmates rejoin society. The analysis found "no effect" on recidivism, mental health, substance abuse, housing, or child support. And the effects on employment, "while statistically significant," were "quite small in practical terms."

So Washington canceled the program, right?

Of course not. It was renamed, and continues as the Reentry Employment Opportunity program. Because after all, it's full of good intentions.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.