Hot! The awful truth about social programs

TheGlobeandMail.com.com – commentary
Oct. 13 2012.   Margaret Wente

One night back in July, a shooting spree broke out in a Toronto social-housing project on Danzig Street. Two young people died. As usual, everyone was shocked that such a thing could happen here. As usual, people demanded more help for troubled neighbourhoods – more social workers, more basketball programs, more jobs, more youth counselling. People who run social programs warned that as funding ran out, more violence might explode.

Yet as I toured the neighbourhood, it struck me that the residents already got a lot of help. They had access to dozens of programs that would send their kids to summer camp, provide mentoring for youth, help students get in to community college, improve parenting skills, and find jobs for young adults with criminal records. Over the past seven years, the city has poured an extra $210-million into programs designed to help Toronto’s “priority” neighbourhoods.

What difference has that money made? Nobody has a clue. Nobody tracked the programs or measured the outcomes, or even collected local data on changing crime and dropout rates. City officials admit that because of the lack of basic information, it’s impossible to evaluate the impact of these investments.

But that’s not unusual. Other governments are no wiser. Hardly any of the countless programs that spend billions of dollars to help the poor and vulnerable are measured for results. According to the Cato Institute, the U.S. spends nearly a trillion dollars a year on anti-poverty measures – which works out to $20,610 per poor person, or around $61,000 for a family of three. “We are spending more than enough money to fight poverty but not spending it in ways that actually reduce poverty,” argues the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner.

It’s beginning to dawn on cash-strapped governments that this has to change. As public finances reach the breaking point, we’ve got to start spending public money more wisely. To do that, we need rigorous evidence about what works.

Now comes the discouraging part. The evidence to date – such as it is – suggests that many, perhaps most, social programs do not make a difference, except to the legions of administrators and social workers who are directly and indirectly employed in delivering them. This is not a conservative conclusion. It is the conclusion of independent groups such as the Brookings Institution (a non-partisan think tank) and the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, which are part of a growing movement to make social spending more accountable.

Here’s one example of how big the problem is, as laid out by the Brookings Institution. The U.S. federal government funds dozens of programs to help youth. These include a $1.2-billion after-school program for disadvantaged youth, a $1.5-billion Job Corps program for at-risk high-school students, and the legendary Head Start program, which spends $7-billion a year to help disadvantaged younger children. Ten of these programs, including Head Start, have been evaluated using the gold standard benchmark of random control groups. Nine of the evaluations found weak or no positive effects. A Brookings report says, “Only one program [Early Head Start, aimed at even younger children] was found to produce meaningful, though modest, positive effects.”

These results are devastating. They suggest that most of the money we spend to help the poor and vulnerable is wasted. For what it’s worth, conservative-inspired programs – Scared Straight, abstinence education, boot camp for young offenders, teacher pay for performance – don’t work any better than liberal-inspired ones.

So, should we just throw in the towel? I don’t think so. What we need to do is be more humble, more realistic and more selective. We need to let the evidence be our guide. Some small, inexpensive interventions appear to work reasonably well. One example is the Montreal Prevention Experiment, which was designed to reduce antisocial behaviour among disruptive boys between the ages of 7 and 9. Just a few family counselling sessions produced modestly positive long-term results. Another successful (though quite expensive) innovation is Pathways to Education, which steers vulnerable kids through high school and on to higher education.

Among the biggest advocates for evidence-based funding is Barack Obama, whose administration is working to redirect funding to programs with solid evidence of success. David Cameron’s U.K. government is moving in the same direction. Canada lags far behind. The idea is suddenly hot stuff in Ontario, where Dalton McGuinty’s government faces crushing deficits. But the truth is that the data needed to make decisions simply don’t exist. As one insider says, “We’ve organized ourselves in such a way that mostly we have no idea what we’re doing.”

Governments are uniquely ill-equipped to overhaul their approach to social spending. To start with, they can’t take the heat. All are saddled with giant legacy programs from the past. Any cuts to any programs, no matter how trivial, invariably spark a firestorm of hostile reaction, complete with heart-wrenching testimony from the victims.

Practically, politicians can’t make big moves without broad-based support from the electorate. And in any case, governments are organized to spend money, not get results. They are equipped to measure volume, not outcomes. Government bureaucracies instinctively manage information in ways that will perpetuate the status quo (and themselves). On top of that, politicians include vast numbers of people who work in the helping industries. The sum of all these forces is a built-in inertia that makes it almost impossible to shift spending to programs that might be more effective.

The next frontier in social policy is to rigorously assess social programs so that we can identify the ones that really make a difference. Meantime, here’s an idea. Let’s take all the money we are spending to help the folks on Danzig Street and just give it to them. Maybe they’ll use it to move to a better neighbourhood.

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Editor’s Note: Earlier, we accepted comments from our readers on the issues raised by this column in a format where our moderators reviewed the comments before posting. Thanks to everyone who participated. The transcript of that debate is below.

  • The basic problem with designing social programs stems from the politics behind them. Elected politicians will push for policies that cater to their constituencies. Sadly, the professionals who must administer these programs find themselves in a difficult situation in trying to make the programs work.
    by Allen I
  • Can you imagine how your home heating system would work without a thermostat?
    by Roger Middleton
  • Why should ineffective social programs be held accountable when journalists are not?
    by Why
  • Ah yes…how to measure the “public good”? A question best left to the Cato Institutes of the world. But, who will measure the public good in the many more $Billions that flow to private sector enterprise? Not to even mention that the private enterprise could not survive without the public good of roads, water services, public transit, police services, fire services, paramedics, and the myriad of other “public” infrastructure provided to them in return for their ever-diminishing share of public revenue support (as None other than Paul Ryan noted this week). So…if we refuse to quantify and apply the proportionate value of the “public benefit” accrued to private enterprise (even tho it would be simple math of dollars in and out) why is it so crucial to try to do so with “people programs”?
    by George
  • Sink or swim. It’s past time we let the freeloaders and good-for-nothings off with the cushy benefits we have handed them. If they don’t appreciate the gifts they have received, well too bad. General society should not be beheld to the minority of people that are to lazy or uncaring to take care of themselves.
    by Eric

1 Comment

  1. When social programs look to be failing, you made me under the assumption it is entirely the governments fault. You have said throughout your article it is the government who creates these policies and who should be looking at them to see if they work. It is the government, who is absent in tracking the results of these programs, to see if there is a positive effect coming from them. If no positive effect, you believe it is the government’s responsibility to recreate and fix it. Your entire argument of the lack of social programs and their support seems to be based off how bad the government is doing, and how they do not have the knowledge in this area to fix anything.
    Government puts a lot of money towards the social programs many rely on for their lives and survival. It is apparent in today’s world that people abuse the system and the money that goes towards the abusers, could be considered a waste as other people could use it. When you argue that these social programs are having no results and making no difference, it made me furious.
    I know people who work 7 days a week trying to support their families, and it is still not enough. They rely on government assistance and social programs for survival and to be able to provide basic needs for their children, as well themselves. Social programs are helping people get basic needs for survival and helping with getting their lives back on track, and you are still able to say there are no results?
    What really made me question your article and argument is the results that you are expecting to see. Nowhere in your article do you put personal impute of what you think should be seen and the results that should be generated from social programs. Instead, over and over again, you argue that government money is being spent in insufficient ways and government is ultimately failing as no results are able to be shown. Yet the results you think should be shown, are not stated anywhere.
    Dennis Rapheal is an author of a textbook that is used in a social welfare class, called “Poverty and Policy in Canada”. Within it, he states that Canada has no one definition of poverty. The lack of a definition makes me wonder how no results can be seen, and how you can bash the government and these social programs for having “no results”. At a universal level there is no one way to determine who is poor and who isn’t. Poverty changes not only due to personal thinking, but as well location, the structure of one’s family (parent to kid ratio), or the life they have had with health or education. If there is no one definition, how can you say that social programs and failing and be willing to put complete blame on government? It is not only the government’s responsibility to help assist people with their lives and to get them back on track, it can also be the communities they live in.
    With no one definition of poverty, it means everyone in society can have their own ideas and judgements upon who is poor and who isn’t. Who is benefiting and who is abusing the system? Just as people have their own ideas and definition of poverty as due the government parties. Each level of government believes poverty to be a separate thing. Each time a new government is elected, it can be argued social programs become altered in order to fit their view of poverty. The results coming from the social programs being adjusted may be the results that are intended to see, as each person will expect different things.
    I think you overgeneralized the idea of how simple poverty is to fix. Poverty is not a problem that will just disappear, but it is one that needs to be looked at and worked on for many years. Poverty cannot be fixed by just giving money, the way you made it sound. By simply giving people money to spend themselves like you suggested, will not get to the core issue of why these people are poor in the first place.
    Within the last section of your article you say, “Governments are organized to spend money, not get results. They are equipped to measure volume, not outcomes”. If you believe that the government is designed this way, then why did you just argue an entire article saying that social programs “failure” is entirely due to government? Perhaps it isn’t the governments fault, but rather blame can be directed to society and each individual.
    My last question is, if you think fixing social programs is such an easy fix, and positive results are easy to get, then why have you not done it yourself?

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