The wrinkle-cure advertisement that just popped up on my screen promises great things: My skin will look ten years younger, if only I buy and use their product.
Americans know to be skeptical of such claims—of the diet pills, no-pain exercise gimmicks, face-lift lotions—that appear as we surf the web or flip to the back of a magazine. Yet why is it that so many buy similar claims when politicians try to convince us that just a bit more of our money will solve intractable societal problems?
Take the President’s new “Preschool for All” initiative that was proposed as a part of his recently released fiscal year 2014 budget. The President claims that more taxpayer-subsidies for early education programs will help level the playing field between rich and poor so that all students have access to high quality preschool programs that prepare them for a lifetime of learning and academic success. The President has said before that the public gets a 10-to-1 return on such investment in early childhood education.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? After all, Americans want all children to have the opportunity to get the most out of life, and we know that a good education is a key first step. A government program that gets these kids ready for school—gives them a “head start,” one might say—seems like a great investment, and like something that should have happened long ago.
And, of course, it did in fact happen long ago. Nearly 50 years ago, in 1964, the federal government launched Head Start, a program that was also supposed to improve the school readiness of low-income children. Indeed, Head Start now helps an estimated 904,000 children attend preschool each year, costing the federal government more than $7 billion or an average of about $7,600 per child served.
Head Start, like this new “Preschool for All” initiative, has long been justified as helping kids get ready for school to put them on the path toward academic success, which will in turn means they can get good jobs, depend less on welfare, commit less crime, and so on. So why doesn’t the President mention Head Start as he discusses this new push for an expanded federal preschool program?
It is probably because, like the internet wrinkle cream, Head Start hasn’t been the miracle cure that it was supposed to be. More than $180 billion has been spent on Head Start over the decades, so if it really generated 10-to-1 returns through reduced social safety net programs, the public would have certainly noticed and most of our welfare programs would no longer be necessary. When Congress reauthorized Head Start in 1998, it mandated an empirical study to assess Head Start’s impact, and sadly that study found that there were no lasting benefits associated with Head Start participation. In other words far from a 10-to-1 return, there is little at all to show for the billions of taxpayers dollar invested in this early education program.
Beware politicians’ claims that a program or their latest scheme will cure a universally-recognized problem. Americans should instead look at actual results and government’s record. More often than not, you will find that while politicians may have noble intentions, government tends to over-promise and under-deliver, creating new costs and new problems along the way.
Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum (www.iwf.org).