Michael Tanner

Remember Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor’s fictional Minnesota town where “all the children are above average?” Well, too many members of Congress inhabit a Lake Wobegon government, where every government program is also above average — not just successful, but essential.

Here is just one example: Among the many outrages that congressional Democrats have assigned to the sequester is that it could reduce the available slots in the Head Start program by as many as 70,000 children.

This was repeatedly hammered home last month when the Democratic leadership complained that Congress was giving additional flexibility to the FAA to avoid furloughs and flight delays, but didn’t restore Head Start funding.

“We ought not to be mitigating the sequester’s effect on just one segment,” said Representative Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, “when children… will be left unhealed.”

Yet a 2010 study and a 2012 follow-up analysis by the Department of Health and Human Services found that with a few exceptions, there were no lasting benefits to children participating in Head Start. In fact, “At the end of 3rd grade, there was suggestive evidence of an unfavorable impact — the parents of the Head Start group children reported a significantly lower child grade promotion rate than the parents of the non-Head Start group children.”

Head Start may not work, but since 1965, the federal government has spent nearly $200 billion of the taxpayers’ money on it. That’s more than we spent to put a man on the moon (adjusted for inflation). And President Obama has now called for making Head Start–style preschool universal.

And Head Start is hardly a unique example of government failure.

The federal government operates 126 separate anti-poverty programs. Since 1965, when we started the War on Poverty, we’ve spent over $15 trillion on these programs, yet we’ve hardly dented the poverty rate. We spend more every year on education, yet test scores and dropout rates fail to improve. Programs such as Social Security and Medicare are careening towards bankruptcy and threatening to take the country along with them. It is increasingly hard to find a single government program that efficiently and cost-effectively accomplishes its goal better than would private-sector alternatives.

Need more recent examples?

Michael Tanner

Michael D. Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, heading research into a variety of domestic policies with particular emphasis on health care reform, welfare policy, and Social Security. His most recent white paper, "Bad Medicine: A Guide to the Real Costs and Consequences of the New Health Care Law," provides a detailed examination of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and what it means to taxpayers, workers, physicians, and patients.