Making Hard Budget Choices: Time To Finish Head Start

There may be no federal program that was begun with better intentions than Head Start.  It was a key part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives and had an ambitious social engineering goal:  to help impoverished kids better prepare themselves for school and a useful life by providing them with preschool.

It is now 45 years later, and the Department of Health and Human Services has released its Head Start Impact Study.  The Study results are clear — Head Start does not work.  The Study found that the positive effects of the Head Start program are minimal and vanish entirely after children reach first grade.  Graduates of Head Start perform about the same as students of the same income and social status who did not participate in Head Start.  In short, we pay $7 billion a year for a program that doesn’t do what it is supposed to do.

In any rational world, the next step would be obvious.  We would end the program and save the $7 billion.  This is modern America, however, so of course that hasn’t happened.  Instead, the defenders of Head Start argue that even if it doesn’t work, it provides money and employment in depressed areas and should be maintained as a jobs program.  The Obama Administration says it is going to funnel the money to more effective programs rather than ending it outright.

Our budget problems are enormous and can only be addressed if every program, tax break, subsidy, and government job is potentially on the chopping block.  If a government program isn’t working, it should be ended, period.  We shouldn’t hesitate to cut defense weapons systems that aren’t performing as designed, or to end subsidies that no longer make rational economic or policy sense.

If we really were serious about tackling our budget problems, Congress would already have digested the Head Start Impact Study and decided to end the program.  Usually there is at least grounds for disagreement about the effectiveness of a federal program, but in this case a government-commissioned study is conclusive about the program’s failure.  What are we waiting for?

Making Hard Budget Choices:  A No Doubt Boring Look At NHTSA

Making Hard Budget Choices: Every Little Bit Counts

I was happy to see that presumptive incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner has announced that he plans on continuing to fly commercial when he commutes between Washington, D.C. and his district in Ohio.  His approach is in contrast to that of current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has flown on an Air Force jet on her trips to and from San Francisco and who has a reputation for high living on the taxpayers’ dime.

I recognize that the costs of paying for the congressional travel, to say nothing of the cost of travel of the Speaker of the House specifically, is a proverbial drop in the enormous, full-to-the-rim-and-slopping-over bucket of our federal deficit.  Nevertheless, I applaud Representative Boehner’s decision, and I hope it will presage some much-needed penny-pinching on the part of Congress.  As my grandmother used to say, if we pay attention to the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves.

I can only hope that Representative Boehner’s sensitivities are shared by other Members of the incoming Congress.  If they scrimp on their own emoluments, maybe they will hold the rest of the federal government to better account.  In an era where we are racking up ludicrous deficits, any savings — no matter how small — are welcome.

Not Serious

After posting a piece this morning, immediately below, about why the “bipartisan budget commission” is a bogus idea that reflects badly on the capabilities of the President and the Congress, hours later I read this piece about how the President would announce today, in Nevada, $1.5 billion in new spending to “help spur local solutions” to the housing foreclosure problem in five states:  Nevada, Arizona, California, Michigan, and Florida.  What could be a clearer indication of why the “bipartisan budget commission” is a joke?

We’ve now seen how things will work.  The President will fly around the country, campaigning for Democratic Senators and Representatives and announcing new spending in their states and districts.  In the meantime, the “heavy lifting” of deficit reduction will be left for out-of-office political has-beens like former Senator Alan Simpson, who will be powerless to do anything other than recommend methods to reduce the deficit.  We all know how this will play out — the new spending will occur, while any proposed spending cuts won’t ever be enacted.

I sympathize with people who have lost their homes because they lost their jobs.  But how many of the people in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida who are experiencing foreclosure problems fall into that category?  How many of them stretched too far in buying their homes, or hoped to “flip” the houses when they bought in what used to be super-heated housing markets, or misrepresented their assets and income when they applied for their home loans?  How many of the banks involved just made bad loans?  Why should taxpayers in Ohio bail such people out, particularly when we have to borrow even more money to do it?

I think President Obama has shown his true stripes.  He doesn’t care about budget deficits or the federal debt, he cares about politics.  He doesn’t have the stomach to make the tough choices  because he cannot stand to suffer the political consequences that inevitably will result.  In that regard, note the sentence in the fourth paragraph of the linked article:  “He will be back in town-hall mode, a venue that aides say allows him to connect with people and distance himself from the messy process of Washington governing.” What could be a clearer indication that President Obama is taking the easy way out?

Making Hard Budget Choices: A No Doubt Boring Look At NHTSA

The President recently released his budget proposal for 2010.  It is a complex, difficult proposal to grasp, contemplating trillions of dollars in spending and trillion-dollar deficits extending, unbroken, into the foreseeable future.

One of the problems for American taxpayers is that the federal government is so large, so sprawling, and so unwieldy that it is virtually impossible to be an informed citizen.  There are too many agencies performing too many functions and producing too much information.  The recent Toyota safety problems, however, have brought NHTSA — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — into focus for me.  I therefore thought that NHTSA might be a good candidate for a closer look at the federal budget, on an individual agency level.

NHTSA is a federal agency that focuses on motor vehicle safety.  Its NHTSA Fiscal Year 2010 Budget Overview, in PDF form, is available here.  The Budget Overview indicates that the total proposed budget would be $867 million, of which $237 million would go to Operations and Research, $4 million would go for the National Driver Register, and the lion’s share — $626 million — would go to National Traffic Safety Grants.  In short, more than 70 percent of NHTSA’s budget doesn’t go to figuring out problems like those that have led to the Toyota recalls.  Instead, it serves as a fund transfer mechanism, where money comes in from the federal taxpayers and then is doled out to states and municipalities through grants.

For purposes of this posting I am going to assume that every cent allocated for Operations and Research and the National Driver Register is used for important federal government purposes.  (This is undoubtedly a generous assumption, because $96 million of the funds budgeted for Operations and Research and the National Driver Register are identified, in Exhibit II-2 of the Budget Overview, as being for “administrative expenses.”)  What about the grants, though?

It turns out that there are eight different grant programs, as well as administrative expenses for these programs, which in 2010 is budgeted for $25 million.  To get more information about the grant programs, you need to go to the NHTSA Fiscal Year 2010 Budget Estimates, which also are available in PDF form here.  According to page 48 of the document, some of the programs are designed to “encourage States to increase seat belt usage” and “child safety seat and child restraint programs.”  These programs include the Seat Belt Performance Grant Program, which is budgeted for $124.5 million, the Occupant Protection Incentive Grants, which is budgeted for $25 million, and the Child Safety and Booster Seat Grants, which is budgeted for $7 million.  In all, more than $150 million in grants go for seat belt-type programs.

Another $139 million is budgeted for Alcohol Incentive Formula Grants, which are designed, according to page 48 of the PDF’d document, to “to encourage States to adopt incentive grants to states for the implementation of effective programs to reduce impaired driving and its tragic consequences.”  The largest grant program, the Section 402 Formula Grants budgeted at $235 million, is intended, also according to page 48, to “support State highway safety programs designed to reduce traffic crashes and resulting deaths, injuries, and property damage,” and under that program “[a] State may use these grant funds only for highway safety purposes; at least 40 percent of these funds are to be expended by political subdivisions (i.e. communities) within the State.”

When you get to the listing of “Anticipated FY 2009 Accomplishments” for the NHTSA grant programs, at pages 51 and 52 of the PDF’d document, you see things like placing a “national media buy” for the “Click It or Ticket” seat belt program and the “Drunk Driving.  Over The Limit.  Under Arrest” program and the participation of all 50 States in those programs.

These NHTSA grant programs help to explain why cutting the federal budget seems to be so difficult for Members of Congress.  One could legitimately conclude that the federal government doesn’t really need to encourage States to have safer roads; one would think the States themselves could and would conclude that is an important goal.  One also could conclude that people really don’t need to be reminded to wear seat belts or that drunk driving is illegal and will be punished.  If individual States or local governments are having significant problems with drunk driving, for example, they can develop and fund their own programs, targeted specifically at the problem areas.

These NHTSA grant programs cost more than half a billion dollars, including the $25 million in administrative costs at the federal government end.  (There also will be costs, of course, at the state and local government end, as those entities hire government workers to design programs that comply with federal regulations, make grant applications, and then themselves administer whatever funds are received from the federal government.)  Yet if Members of Congress voted to eliminate these programs, in order to realize some significant savings, during their next campaign they risk being on the receiving end of attack ads that use those votes to argue that they are in favor of drunk driving, or against seat belt use or children using child restraint seats.  The malign images of those potential ads probably flash through their minds when the budget is discussed, and they take the path of least resistance and vote against any cuts in the grant programs.  The end result is that nothing gets done, federal spending never decreases, and our budget deficit and national debt holes get deeper.

No one supports drunk driving, unsafe roads, or reckless child-rearing activities.  But if we are going to get our federal budget under control, hard choices have to be made.  I think a good start would be to get the federal government out of the grant-making and TV ad-buying game and let States and local governments make their own decisions about how best to enforce existing laws on traffic safety, seat belt use, and punishing drunk driving.  $626 million in savings may not seem like a lot of money — at least, not to a Member of Congress faced with trillions in federal spending — but it is a start, and every little bit of savings is needed if we are going to turn around our deeply troubling budget predicament.