Thursday, January 20, 2005

Hyman and Head Start

In the mouth of a far-right conservative such as Mark Hyman, the word “reform” when applied to any government program should be translated as “dismantle.”

As we’ve pointed out in previous posts, the recent brouhaha over Social Securities fictional crisis is fueled by the underlying desire of conservatives to wither away one of the oldest and most successful social programs in existence. Why? Because conservatives fundamentally believe that social programs, successful or not, are by definition wrong.

Such is the case with Head Start as well. Hyman delivers an editorial that pays lip service to the program, but argues for greater “accountability.” This is another code word in conservative circles. It means control and limit without doing anything productive. Hyman is less concerned about the quality of Head Start care than with chipping away at the program altogether. This is evidenced by his primary complaint about Head Start: that a few cases of misappropriation of funds have been discovered. This is akin to Reagan’s excoriation of the entire welfare program because of fictitious welfare mothers driving Cadillacs.

Let’s ignore for the moment that if instances of funds being misused or squandered were sufficient cause to eliminate a government program, the Defense Department would go by the boards immediately. The fact is that Head Start, like Social Security, is a program that has made the country a demonstrably better, more civilized place to live. Children who receive Head Start care are less likely to end up in legal trouble as teens and adults, more likely to stay in school, and will make more money as adults. One recent study concluded that taxpayers receive $17 in savings for every $1 spent on pre-kindergarten programs for disadvantaged children.

Hyman protests that while Head Start has shown short term benefits, those benefits seem to vanish over the long haul. In fact, as Hyman himself notes, the variable measured in these studies is only cognitive functioning, something that tends to level off over time anyway. More recent studies that measure academic success, criminal behavior, and future earnings all show significant positive results for Head Start kids well into adulthood.

But this will not likely convince the Hyman’s of the world that the Bush plan to cut Head Start funding is unwise. Again, the real argument isn’t how to make Head Start better. Hyman and his fellow conservatives believe that people who are poor are poor for a reason: lack of initiative and discipline. They also believe that government shouldn’t be in the business of helping people, unless it is to grease the wheels of the free market for corporations. Between this low opinion of those in poverty and the disdain for government programs of any sort, no matter how productive and successful, fully funding Head Start is a nonstarter in conservative circles.

But again, because the vast majority of Americans think more should be spent on education, that the government should help those most at risk, and that prevention is better and more cost effective than curing a problem after it happens, conservatives can’t argue against Head Start openly. Therefore, we find ourselves immersed in the Orwellian doublespeak of conservative policymaking. They want to “reform” Head Start into the ground.

“Reform,” “accountability,” and “restructuring” are charming buzzwords, and the ideas they appear to refer to are worth talking about. But in the mouth of Hyman and his political allies, they all mean one thing: ravaging a program that serves to better the current and future lives of at-risk children.

And that’s The Counterpoint.


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