Uplifting the Poor One Lie at a Time

Joseph Schumpeter, the great Austrian economist, observed that the first thing a man would do for his ideals is lie[1]. Nowhere is this more true than when defending America's burgeoning social welfare colossus. Deceit is almost a moral imperative. Why should cruel truth stand in the way of uplifting millions who allegedly suffer through no fault of their own? Who wants to be the cold-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge who rigorously fact-checks iffy welfare applications? 

Nevertheless, if a contest were held for "lying to do good," today's radical tenured professors would be Olympic champions. Since academic outsiders seldom observe this breathtaking "well-intentioned" mendacity, let me offer a case study of this dubious munificence. A recent New York Times story recounts a group of University of California-Berkeley professors endorsing spending billions for early childhood intervention to help struggling Hispanics. According to research on 8,114 infants, they found that while Hispanic children are intellectually similar to other American toddlers at age two, they quickly fall behind linguistically and cognitively. This gap then widens with age and, according to the research, is not a result of poor nutrition or parental neglect, the usual alleged culprits in cognitive gaps. Nor does poverty fully explain the divergence since even poor whites outshine Hispanics. 

The difference, it is alleged, is a purely environmentally caused "disparity" that must be "attacked" before these youngsters mess up in elementary school -- which, in practical terms, means lower incomes, etc., etc. In other words, being below average mentally is akin to, say, stunted growth due to a dietary deficiency and thus, at least in principle, remediable. Whether this gap is nature, nurture, or some mix is irrelevant since there is nothing about environmentally caused phenomena that makes them particularly remediable (doubters might review the history of U.S. public housing). It is all very simple, and in the words of one author, "The reading activities, educational games and performing the ABC's for Grandma -- so often witnessed in middle-class homes -- are less consistently seen in poor Latino households."    

The Berkeley professors' call for yet more early childhood intervention is hardly a voice in the wilderness. The Times also quotes Eugene Garcia, an education professor at Arizona State University who admits that the reason why Hispanic kids so quickly fall behind whites is unclear, but this uncertainty hardly deters him from likewise recommending early intercession. Carmen Rodriguez, director of Columbia University's Head Start Program, concurs: Toddlers from low-income families are doomed unless they receive early intellectual stimulation. Indeed, this early childhood intervention strategy to narrow learning gaps is the academic orthodoxy regardless of the advocate's race or ethnicity. 

And Washington hardly objects. President Obama's appropriately named stimulus package included $3 billion for Head Start and Early Hard Start to help young parents stimulate their children's mental development, and not even skinflint Republicans object. Given the tough job market for recent college grads, perhaps unemployed English majors will explicate the hidden patriarchy in Three Little Pigs to wide-eyed, stimulus-deprived Hispanic toddlers.

Now for a few facts from that awful, cold-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge:

Early intervention has not worked, and nothing suggests that tinkering and extravagant funding will reverse these failures. Head Start began in 1965. It has to date absorbed $167 billion, it is relentlessly scrutinized (annual assessments are legally required), and the failure verdict is indisputable. Similar disappointing results occurred even in much smaller labor-intensive projects, where youngsters intellectually lagging behind their peers received daily intellectual stimulation. One such intervention began at three months of age and transpired for seven hours a day, five days a week. When the children were a bit older, they attended a "stimulation center" from 9:00AM to 4:00PM every day of the year. Alas, by fourth grade, the value of this intensive intervention had vanished [2].     

A 1985 U.S. Department of Health and Human Service analysis found that the Head Start program's claim of long-term benefits was exaggerated, and this included increases in cognitive test scores and academic benefits plus such non-academic benefits as reducing crime, teen pregnancy, and unemployment [3]. Another study of Head Start completed in 2006 using a random assignment experimental design with 5,000 children did show some initial progress (using some 41 indicators of cognitive impact), but, yet one more time, the intellectual benefits vanished by the time children entered first grade [4]. And these two studies are typical.     

What apparently fuels this optimism is not science, but mass media accounts from the likes of Newsweek desperate to find magic bullet solutions to racial/ethnic differences. Further, add entrepreneurs hawking IQ-boosting gimmicks to anxious parents (e.g., Mozart CDs for infants). Perhaps these Berkeley professors based their ideas on the hype commonplace in children's stores catering to well-educated parents.

How can academics at respectable institutions get away with this mendacious fantasy? Why has the New York Times reporter (James C. McKinley, Jr.) passed on the "Will it work?" question? What about the guardians at the Maternal and Health Care Journal where the study will be published? Surely these experts are familiar with the term "literature review," and if they had done the required work, then the folly of their recommendations would be obvious. This is almost the equivalent of the Berkeley Geography Department embracing a flat earth.

There are important lessons here. Obviously, the ideologically infused analysis suggests that the desire to expand the social welfare state, even if by quackery, has become so ingrained in certain academic departments (and the New York Times) that it resembles a religious faith. Nobody challenges the assumption that a racial/ethnic difference that favors the white middle class is "a problem" requiring government-funded solutions. Everything is just "compassionate" belief coupled with a moral imperative to spend government money. So much for erudite professors ridiculing anti-science creationism -- different gospels for different folk.  

The Head Start "solution" also betrays economic illiteracy. Is government-funded talk-to-kids-with-bigger-words intervention the superior tactic to close cognitive gaps? What about reducing taxes on small businesses so Juan and Juanita can become entrepreneurs, and with the newfound cash, move the family to a middle-class neighborhood so Juan Jr. can play with more linguistically advanced kids? Perhaps the family's newfound wealth could finance horizon-expanding travel versus having a social worker give Juan Jr. a second-hand account. If, as the authors claim, poverty is a key reason for the lack of intellectual stimulation, why not instead use the billions to cut taxes for the ambitious poor instead of hiring more government workers to meddle in family life?   

To be frank, the "well-intentioned" professors just don't care about Hispanic kids. Expanding the social welfare state is paramount. Nor is it self-evident that Hispanic parents want to be preempted by outside "experts." These Berkeley professors are merely honoring politically correct gods and squandering billions combined while ignoring opportunity costs as irrelevant. Just imagine a Berkeley professor of education announcing that cognitive differences, regardless of source, are probably intractable, and so Hispanic youngsters, like every other human being, must make the best of their abilities. And why risk totalitarian tinkering with family life to achieve racial/ethnic proportionality in America's prestige professions?  So, given the failures of past intervention efforts, Juan's parents may be better-advised to inculcate their son with a strong work ethic and good habits and insist that he find a suitable occupation. With lower taxes thanks to eliminating wasteful spending, Juan Jr. can prosper.  

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana.

[1] Joseph Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. P. 43.  

[2] The best overview of these efforts can be found in Steven Farron, The Affirmative Action Hoax. Santa Ana, CA: Seven Locks Press, Chapter 7.

[3] Cited in Hood, John 1992. "The Head Start Scam" Policy Analysis number 187. Washington, DC: CATO Institute.

[4] Cited in Lindsey Burk, "Study: Head Start Has No Lasting Impact From $167 Billion Spent," School Reform News, March 2010
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