Sunday, November 17, 2013

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.
To paraphrase a famous Mark Twain quote, suppose you passed a farm bill. And suppose you passed a food stamp bill. But I repeat myself.

Hard as it may be to believe, 80 percent of the farm bill being hammered out by the Senate and the House of Representatives is made up not of agriculture programs, but of food stamps. And if that sounds upside down to you, you clearly don’t live “inside the Beltway,” where Orwellian logic is the order of the day.

Why are food stamps rolled into the legislation? They’re included “purely from a political perspective,” Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, said earlier this year. “It helps get the farm bill passed.”

At least it used to. House members who had tired of this business-as-usual practice rebelled this year, and managed to pass a version of the farm bill that (unlike its Senate counterpart) took food stamps out. When The Washington Post editorialized about the House bill, it listed this among the legislation’s “good points,” adding:

“[F]or the first time in many years, representatives passed agriculture-support programs separately from food stamps, ending the old log-rolling arrangement between urban and rural delegations that insulated both programs from scrutiny on the merits.”

Unfortunately, this is Washington, where most politicians do their hardest work insulating programs from scrutiny on the merits.

Most Americans, however, favor the House’s action. In a “Food Demand Survey” conducted by Oklahoma State University, people asked whether they supported or opposed the following statement: “Separate the food stamp program from the farm bill and debate its merit separately from farm supports and subsidies.” Support came in at 73 percent.

Separation isn’t the only issue though. The entire purpose of separating food stamps from agriculture programs is to achieve real reform. While there’s a lively debate going on regarding food stamp reform, that’s not the case when it comes to other troubling provisions of the farm bill. As has been the case since FDR was president, agriculture policy is a government- run behemoth that would make a Soviet central planner blush.

The most expensive single farm program subsidizes about 62 percent of the premiums that farms pay for crop insurance. Yet instead of finding ways to reduce the load on taxpayers, the House and Senate versions would expand this program.

Or take the sugar program. Sugar prices have generally been double the world price for decades. It’s largely due to the government dictating how much sugar can be sold, and imposing quotas on imports -- quotas designed solely to protect the market share of domestic producers. Every sugar-sweetened product costs more to make, adding to everyone’s grocery bills. Both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill keep the sugar program intact.

Meanwhile, as I’ve detailed in previous columns, the bulk of agriculture subsidies go not to the small, struggling farmers that most Americans envision, but to huge “agri-businesses” with annual incomes well in excess of $1 million.

Yes, the House and Senate are finally dropping the direct payments made for years to farmer of certain commodities, such as corn, cotton, wheat and rice -- subsidies so indefensible, the American Farm Bureau Federation has called for their repeal. But they’re adding new programs that could prove even costlier, such as one that would force taxpayers to cover even minor losses suffered by farmers.

“A farm bill should serve the interests of the American people,” writes Heritage Foundation farm-bill expert Daren Bakst. “This first starts with taking politics out of the bill.” That means considering food stamps separately and making other needed reforms. Raising another bumper crop of subsidies and bad policy is simply unacceptable.

Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity"

From Jihad Watch / Posted by Robert Spencer

What did she say about the "Palestinian" jihadists' vows to obliterate Israel entirely? What did she say about the genocidal Jew-hating rhetoric regularly featured on "Palestinian" TV?

"Obama national security aide chides Israel over settlements," from Reuters, November 15 (thanks to Jerk Chicken):
President Barack Obama's top national security aide on Thursday blamed Israeli settlement expansion announcements for some of the latest tensions between Israel and the Palestinians as US-brokered peace talks between the two sides have faltered. 
In a speech to a Washington think tank, Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, said the United States remained committed to Middle East peacemaking, but made clear that it saw Jewish settlement construction plans as hampering those efforts.
"We have seen increased tensions on the ground. Some of this is a result of recent settlement announcements. So let me reiterate: The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity," she said....