When Good Intentions Yield Bad Results

by David B. Muhlhausen

A new randomized experiment, mentioned at an Economist blog, raises an important question: Can a social program sometimes hurt the very people it is trying to help? The answer to this question is clearly yes.  And we do not have to go all the back to the 1930s to reference the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study, a well-executed random experiment that attempted to prevent the delinquency of juvenile males through over five years of counseling. Compared to the control group, those who received the well-intentioned treatment were more likely to have been convicted of serious crimes, died an average of five years younger, and were more likely to be medically diagnosed with alcoholism, schizophrenia, and manic depression. More alarming, the adverse effects increased as the intensity and duration of the treatment increased. 

More recent examples of federally funded social programs doing harm can be found in my book, Do Federal Social Programs Work? The results of the 20 multi-site experimental evaluations of 21 federal social programs published since 1990 generally find that these programs are ineffective.  However, social-program advocates too frequently concentrate on any beneficial, even if only modest, impacts that have been identified. Nevertheless, politicians and policy experts also need to recognize that federal social programs can have a harmful impact, too. These harmful effects rarely get mentioned in government press releases announcing the findings of evaluations.

Here are just a few examples from my book:

A 1993 evaluation of Department of Labor job-training programs operating under the Job Training Partnership Act found that adult men participating in training programs were more likely to be dependent on welfare benefits than similar men not given access to the training. Male youths with no criminal arrest record at the time of random assignment were more likely to be arrested after participating in federal job-training programs, while male youth with histories of arrest experienced long-term declines in income.
A 2002 evaluation of Early Head Start, a HHS program that serves infants and toddlers under the age of three and pregnant women, found that the program increases dysfunctional parent-child interactions for white parents. Further, participation in Early Head Start appears to have increased welfare dependency for Hispanics.
Evaluations of Head Start published in 2010 and 2012 mainly found the program to be ineffective. However, there were a few harmful impacts worth noting. For the three-year-old cohort of the Head Start Impact Study, kindergarten teachers reported that math abilities were worse than for similar children not given access to the program. For the four-year-old cohort, teachers reported that Head Start children in the first grade were more likely to be shy or socially reticent than their peers. By the third grade, teachers reported that the four-year-old cohort with access to Head Start displayed a higher degree of unfavorable emotional symptoms than similar children without access to the program. Further, children in the four-year-old cohort self-reported poorer peer relations with fellow children than their counterparts in the control group.
 The role of the federal government in funding after-school programs increased substantially after passage of the Improving America’s School Act of 1994, which created the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. A 2007 multi-site experimental impact evaluation of the program found a whole host of harmful effects. Overall, teachers found participating students to have disciplinary problems that were confirmed by student-reported data. According to their teachers, participating students were less likely to achieve at above average or high levels in class and were less likely to put effort into reading or English classes. These students were also more likely to have behavior problems in school than their counterparts. Teachers were more likely to have to call the parents of participating students about misbehavior. Participating students were also more likely to miss recess or be placed in the hall for disciplinary reasons, while also having parents come to school more often to address behavior problems. 21st Century students were also more likely to be suspended from school than similar students.

In sum, federal social programs that harm their participants are not uncommon. This fact is all too often ignored by the advocates of these programs.

— David B. Muhlhausen is a research fellow in empirical policy analysis in the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation.