New Brookings Report on Government Failures Ignores Failed Social Programs

by David B. Muhlhausen

A new Brookings Institution report, “A Cascade of Failures,” by Paul C. Light concludes that the failures of the federal government are accelerating. As the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government continually expand the power and responsibilities of the federal government beyond its core constitutional functions, none of the failures pointed out by Light should come as a surprise.

What is surprising are the numerous failures that are omitted by Light’s methodology that relies solely on news stories listed in the Pew Research Center’s News Interest Index. Consequently, Light’s methodology limits government failures to major news events that are driven by shocking events, scandals, and cover-ups, such as the IRS targeting of tea-party groups, the Benghazi attack, Hurricane Katrina, and the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. While these failures are serious, Light’s methodology omits numerous failures of federal social programs.

For decades, large-scale evaluations using the “gold standard” of random assignment have consistently found that federal social programs are ineffective. For example, a scientifically rigorous evaluation of Head Start, a pre-K education program for disadvantaged children, demonstrated that almost all the benefits of the program disappear by kindergarten. Alarmingly, Head Start actually had a harmful effect on 3-year-old participants once they entered kindergarten, with teachers reporting that nonparticipating children were more prepared in math skills than the children who attended Head Start. And, to add insult to injury, since the program’s creation Congress has dumped over $202 billion into this failed program.

These failures extend to numerous other federal social programs. For instance, lLarge-scale experimental evaluations of federal job-training programs intended to help individuals find jobs and increase their earnings have consistently failed. Federal training programs intended to boost entrepreneurship and self-employment of the unemployed haven’t worked either. And federal job-training programs targeting youth and young adults have been found to be extraordinarily ineffective.

The simple fact is that when it comes to federal social programs, there is a dearth of evidence suggesting that these programs work. While Light shines the spotlight on government failure, his report omits the overwhelming scientific evidence that federal social programs are ineffective.

— David B. Muhlhausen is a research fellow in empirical policy analysis in the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation and author of Do Federal Social Programs Work?