Steve Chapman

When the government shutdown began on Oct. 1, it forced the closing of Head Start facilities in several states, stopping educational services for thousands of low-income kids. So heart-rending was this spectacle that a pair of Texas philanthropists gave $10 million to keep the programs going.

Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas appeared at a rally of parents protesting the Head Start closures, holding up a child's chair and declaring, "Here is the empty chair of the next astronaut. Here is the empty chair of a captain in the United States military."

House Republicans were not about to be accused of depriving poor children. They approved a measure to provide funding for Head Start, with one member attesting, "As we work our way out of this government shutdown mess, we shouldn't let some of our most vulnerable citizens, low-income children with no recourse, suffer."

That was not good enough for President Barack Obama, who prevailed in his insistence that the House agree to fund the government across the board through Jan. 15. Amid the bitter quarrel, no one bothered to ask whether Head Start is actually serving the purposes that justify its budget.

Maybe that's because they know the answer is no but aren't willing to face being denounced for cruelty to disadvantaged tots. For decades, Head Start has consistently disappointed anyone who expected it to make a real difference in the fortunes of the poor.

A 2010 study by the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that though there were modest benefits to participating kids, they soon evaporated. "The benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by first grade for the program population as a whole," it admitted. "For 3-year-olds, there are few sustained benefits."

A federal social program that burns though billions of dollars, year in and year out, despite showing scant value to those it's supposed to help? That may sound like a regrettable anomaly. In fact, as David Muhlhausen documents in his new book, "Do Federal Social Programs Work?" (Praeger), it's pretty much the norm.

The author, a longtime scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, appears to have reviewed every study of these undertakings, as evidenced in 47 pages of footnotes. The overwhelming majority, he finds, don't accomplish anything resembling their stated mission, and some even "produce harmful outcomes."

The dismal results might be excused as the price of showing concern for people in genuine need, if not for the fact that these efforts cost so much -- $443 billion in 2011, exceeding 3 percent of gross domestic product.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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