Head Start: A Fantasy and a Fraud

October 14, 2010

Americans tell themselves lies about public policy.

“Increase subsidies and mandates, and ‘green energy’ will quickly replace coal, oil, and natural gas.”

“Foreign interventionism doesn’t breed resentment and blowback.”

“‘Mass’ transit reduces traffic congestion.”

No matter how much evidence researchers compile to torpedo these and countless other bromides, the money still flows, accountability remains nonexistent, and voters seem content to dwell in denial.

But the most destructive whopper we let ourselves believe about government involves children in poverty.

This year, two devastating documents have exposed the ineffectiveness and dishonesty of the touchiest-feeliest program ever to receive a taxpayer dollar. They obliterate the notion that good things happening in school can compensate for bad things happening at home.

Head Start, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is a “national program that promotes school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social and other services to enrolled children and families.”

To say that Head Start is popular is akin to calling Lindsay Lohan mildly troubled. As the John Locke Foundation’s John Hood observed nearly 20 years ago, “Both liberal Democratic and conservative Republican governors tout it. Even disgruntled, frustrated business leaders … sing [its] praises.”

There are just two problems with the program, according to the new analyses: It doesn’t work, and it’s corrupt.

Launched in 1965, at the apex of Great Society foolishness, no one was seriously interested in how it actually performed until 2002, when the Head Start Impact Study began. Researchers tested thousands of children, picked at random, who did and did not enroll. Head Start produced benefits, the study concluded in January, but they were fleeting -- improvements were “largely absent by 1st grade.”

“Overall,” summarized the Heritage Foundation’s David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D., “the program had little to no positive effects …. For example, compared to similarly situated children not allowed access to Head Start, access to the program failed to raise the cognitive abilities of Head Start participants on 41 measures. Specifically, the language skills, literacy, math skills, and school performance of the participating children failed to improve.”

Heritage estimates that adjusted for inflation, $167.5 billion was spent on Head Start between its inception and fiscal year 2009. And we now have solid data to show that just about all of that revenue was wasted.

At-risk children enjoy no lasting boost from Head Start because all the school-based support the welfare state can muster can’t make up for what goes on at home. Fatherlessness, abuse, drug addiction, and hell-hole neighborhoods where thuggery, sloth, and ignorance are glorified override the work of the best-intentioned teachers and social workers.

Then again, perhaps the motives of those bureaucrats aren’t so altruistic. In 2008 and 2009, the Government Accountability Office’s hotline received credible fraud allegations about Head Start centers in the Midwest and Texas. Dime-droppers claimed that the facilities were “enrolling over-income or otherwise ineligible children in the program in order to meet funded enrollment numbers.”

GAO agents posed as low-income parents. In a report issued last month, the agency revealed that the whistleblowers were legit: “Head Start employees actively encouraged our fictitious families to misrepresent their eligibility for the program.” (Audio clips from the undercover stings are appalling.) The GAO found that providers “lacked controls over child care assistance application and billing processes,” leaving “the program vulnerable to fraud and abuse.” In five criminal cases, “parents and providers defrauded the … program. These cases involved parents falsifying eligibility documentation, providers billing states for fictitious children, and collusion between parents and providers to obtain payment for services that were never provided.”

“None of [the GAO’s] findings are particularly surprising considering that government bureaucracies have little incentive to make sure funds are appropriately spent,” notes the Cato Institute’s Tad DeHaven. “The reason is simple: bureaucracies play with other people’s money and aren’t subjected to competitive market forces.”

Is the nation serious about reducing government? If so, Head Start should be the first place to start. A wasteful -- and at times, criminal -- legacy from an era of deep naïveté, it is time to stop kidding ourselves about its ability to help kids.

Scrapping a failed program and sparking a search for effective solutions to the problem of child poverty are sure to produce angry demonstrations and hysterical editorials in The New York Times.

So what. We know that Head Start doesn’t work. However politically incorrect, it’s time to talk about what, if anything, should replace it.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. He lives in Broad Brook, Connecticut.

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