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  • Why Do National Social Programs Frequently Fail?

    In a recent issue of Time, Joe Klein acknowledges the ignored reality that national-scale programs based on effective pilot programs frequently do not yield the same successful results. His case in point is Head Start—a “Great Society” pre-school program intended to provide a boost to disadvantaged children before they enter elementary school.

    Head Start was based on a few pilot programs, such as the Perry Preschool program, that were believed to be effective. Advocates asserted that a national preschool program for disadvantaged children would yield the same positive results.

    However, the 2010 Head Start Impact Study, a scientifically rigorous evaluation of multiple Head Start sites throughout the nation, found that the program is clearly ineffective. The program has had little to no positive effects for children granted access to Head Start.

    Klein asks, “Why do so many [government programs] succeed as pilots and fail when taken to scale?” The answer to his question is two-fold. First, national programs often do a poor job of replicating the crucial factors found in the pilot programs that are necessary for producing the same successful results, such as hiring highly skilled staff. Second, the social conditions contributing to the success of a particular pilot program are often not present in other settings. A very poignant example is the case of police departments performing mandatory arrests in domestic violence incidents.

    During the 1980s, criminologists Lawrence W. Sherman and Richard A. Berk (currently professors at the University of Pennsylvania) analyzed the impact of mandatory arrests for domestic violence incidents on future domestic violence incidents in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The experiment found that mandatory arrests led to significantly lower rates of domestic violence. Police departments from across the nation adopted the mandatory arrest policy based on the results of this lone program conducted in a single city. Did the positive results hold when mandatory arrest policies were replicated and evaluated in other cities?

    What worked in Minneapolis did not always work in other locations. Replications in Omaha, Nebraska; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Charlotte, North Carolina; found that mandatory arrests lead to long-term increases in domestic violence. Apparently, re-offenders, knowing that they would be automatically arrested and spend the night in jail, responded by becoming even more abusive to their partners.

    A subsequent analysis by Sherman in his book Domestic Violence: Experiments and Dilemmas postulated that arrested individuals lacking a stake in conformity within their communities were significantly more likely to engage in domestic violence after arrest, while married and employed arrested individuals were significantly less likely to commit further domestic violence infractions. Thus, the social conditions in Omaha, Milwaukee, and Charlotte led to an entirely different result than in Minneapolis.

    Policymakers and advocates of social programs often assume that a single social program found to be effective in a single setting will automatically have the same results when implemented in other settings. This assumption too frequently turns out to be dead wrong.

    Posted in Ongoing Priorities [slideshow_deploy]

    11 Responses to Why Do National Social Programs Frequently Fail?

    1. Jeff says:

      What about the Federal Programs that had no pilot programs and were created out of thin air and social justice theories ? I'd bet their track record is even worse …

    2. Gordon Woods says:

      Frequently? How about always?

    3. Stirling says:

      National Social Programs fail simply because the Government can NOT be everything to everyone. Stealing from the rich to pay for the poor only works until those who produce decide there is no "incentive or reward" for producing. The whole moral aspect of the arguement fails when you take the arguement to it's ends (where everyone is poor from the re-distrubution of wealth.)

    4. YnotNOW says:

      Another big reason is the "Entitlement Mentality" encouraged among beneficiaries by the anonymous nature of a national or bureaucratic program. Once you are "entitled" to benefits, you are no longer grateful nor incentivized to graduate off of a program. The bureaucrats who administer are more interested in the perpetuation of their job than the pilot program employees who were motivated to create a program in the first place by community spirit or religious principle.

      You cannot nationally replicate "caring for people."

    5. Bobbie says:

      What many government programs do is deter personal responsibility and refine it into socialism so people won't develop the mind or ambition to figure things out on their own. Government and it's limitless unearned expense is right there to unconstitutionally figure it out for us!!!! Government social programs insult the individual mentality and of course replace freedom with government created socialism. Scary how ungrateful an low people would go to do this to America …

    6. Over the Hill says:

      The conclusions cited regarding the Head Start study are not totally accurate. It does not conclude the program is ineffective, in fact, it does not reach any conclusions. It notes less impact than expected and sometimes some conflicting results.

      Living in a high poverty area and having taught in public schools, serving as a public school board member and involved with Head Start programs in several different communities at different times over the past 35 years, I can only wonder how much worse some of these children would fare without Head Start intervention.

      In the area where I currently live, I have observed in classrooms that are using a program called conscious discipline. Parents and grandparents report significant behavioral changes with children learning self control. Public schools do not always (rarely in my experience) address the needs of the total child or the family. Parents working two jobs to meet the basic needs of the family are viewed as disinterested in their children because they can not participate on the one chance schedule set by the school with no consideration for the family's circumstances.

      This article, like Klein's article, does a disservice to Head Start and to the study itself by only telling part of the story. I wish my 5 year old granddaughter had participated in Head Start.

    7. carol,az says:

      Socal Security is riddle wuith fraud . Our govt knows it and refuses to exicute any accountability over this issues._This year AZ did it's ownforentic accountability to match all SS #'s for AZ State returns with the IRS for fraud and S.S'#. All non-matches had a specific time period to prove otherwise. _The second leagl fraud boomdoggle is all programs under the heading of Medicaid.Under this monster are so many shopping cart programs for welfare to milions that abled bodied and have learned to work the system. No one, on the State evel will touch this issue with few exception ofr Stattes Rights.

    8. Joel Ryan says:

      Oh if I only had a dime for every single time the Heritage Foundation found a reason to find fault with Head Start. You guys could start a business just attacking this program. I understand completely that it must be very frustrating that efforts to dismantle and or get rid of Head Start has not been successfully despite your best efforts. So for fun let me point out a couple of things: 1) Decades of research on Head Start has found that the program does get kids ready for school and reduces the number of children needing special education services, reduces welfare dependency, and helps keeps kids out of jail; 2) The Impact Study that you keep hanging your hat on actually found that the program did in fact get kids ready for school. But that some of the gains faded out because the children not surprisingly went to poorly performing public schools. If you read the report you will see that the authors note several times that Head Start got kids ready for school which is what it is tasked to do.

    9. Charlene March says:

      Head Start is all about school readiness! It is about social, emotional and educational development for pre-schoolers who need it the most. Children with special needs are referred to the proper resources within their community so that they too, have a chance to enter school on par with their peers. I've read the study the Heritage Foundation is referring to and can't find the conclusions the foundation is reporting.

    10. Bobbie says:

      What do the parents do?

    11. J..... says:

      Most failed social programs can be traced back to a liberal or democratic politician. They are not geniune social programs….they are simply money grabs by greasy sleazy politicians who appoint their lazy relatives to run the program and it is doomed before it starts.

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