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January 1991; Volume 9, Number 1

Dead Start

by Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.

Project Head Start is supposed to be the exception to the Great Society rule - a welfare program that actually works. David Broder of the Washington Post calls it "the most effective anti-crime and anti-drug program in the nation."  Sen. Edward Kennedy says we should model a "Marshall Plan" in "early education" on it. The New York Times calls it the "Great Society jewel."  

Excuse me if I don't want it set into the national diadem just yet,especially since the deficit reductioneers of the Bush administration just granted Head Start a 72% increase to $2.4 billion in 1992, with scheduled growth to $7.7 billion in 1994.

The idea sounds plausible, of course. Take pre-school, inner-city children and bridge the income and behavioral gap between the underclass and the rest of society. Head Start would "interrupt the cycle of poverty" with education, medical care, psychological counselling, and food, we were told. Yet Head Start has been a failure, even by the social scientists' own criteria.

Launched on a budget of $17 million, Head Start cost almost $100 million its first year. By last year, the budget was $1.4 billion, with fewer children enrolled.  

In the early years, extensive studies were undertaken to prove the program worked. But the opposite turned out to be true. In 1969, the Westinghouse Learning Corporation found no dfference in behavior and educational achievement between Head Start children and other underclass kids.  

Sixteen years later, the CRS Synthesis Project study, commissioned by HHS, came to the same conclusion. Although children showed "immediate gains," by the second grade "there are no educationally meaningful differences."

Head Start defenders now say it improves behavior, self esteem, and nutrition - at $8,400 per kid over the usual three years. But the same CRS study said there were no lasting differences in behavior. And on "achievement motivation" and "self-esteem," Head Start children "drop below non-Head Starters a year after Head Start, then score about the same as comparison children for the next two years."

The CRS study did find that Head Start kids "have higher protein, calorie, and essential nutrient intake than children who do not attend" - because they are given a meal and a snack during the day - but that benefit dissipates after leaving the program.  In fact, the only lasting impact, the study found, came as a result of immunization shots.

Head Start has flunked its own tests.

Parental involvement, which is supposed to distinguish Head Start from other welfare programs, is minimal. A National Parent Involvement Study found that only about 9% of parents volunteer even one day a week.  

Some proponents say it is insensitive to examine the actual behavior of Head Start children, since this doesn't take into account the supposed "desire" for better behavior that the program instills (although any visitor to a non-Potemkin Village Head Start center has to wonder exactly what sort of behavior is being instilled). And two Howard University researchers say that Head Start can't work as long as it's run by whites who ignore the unique learning patterns of blacks.

Head Start is supposed to help get families off welfare, but the CRS study shows "increased use of education, health, and social services" - euphemisms for welfare. Thus Head Start, like all welfare programs, teaches dependency.

The Children's Defense Fund says the main benefit of Head Start is the jobs provided to the disadvantaged  - 32% of whom are former Head Start children.  Once again - as is typical in Washington, Chicago, New York, and other big cities - "employment" in a welfare program is itself a form of welfare.  

We should help poor kids, but how can a government dedicated to undermining family and individual independence in every section of the population do so?  Economic and political theory, as well as bitter experience, tells us that no non-private effort can do so.

Conditions in the underclass have gotten far worse as government has crowded out charity.  We could paraphrase Tacitus: they make a desolation, and call it welfare.

How can anyone argue, after six decades of the welfare state, that children, even from poor families, are better off in the hands of state social workers? Or that bureaucrats can teach proper behavior? Hasn't anyone ever visited a federal office? Miss Manners doesn't work there.

After 25 years of proven non-achievement, isn't it time to reassess Head Start and the Bush administration's giant spending increase for it?  

The federal government is broke, and it's breaking the American people with more taxes. As a result, we all have less money to give.

Why not abolish this program, and give a real head start to taxpayers and the private organizations that actually help poor people? Making the poor wards of the state has only enhanced the state, and hurt the poor. 

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Mises Institute. Rockwell@mises.org

 

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