Steve Chapman

This book, whose importance is inverse to its likely readership, excludes Social Security, unemployment insurance and veterans' benefits because they must be earned through work. Muhlhausen concentrates on the Great Society programs enacted in the 1960s under President Lyndon B. Johnson, which were meant to "eradicate the fundamental causes of poverty by providing opportunity to the poor" and "ultimately make redistribution unnecessary." So far, you may have noticed, they have accomplished neither objective.

There was a sound idea behind LBJ's approach, namely that the way to help the disadvantaged was to give them the tools to become prosperous. Head Start would confer a boost in learning that would have a permanent payoff. The Job Corps would equip them with the skills to earn good wages. Upward Bound would prepare them for college. But the federal government didn't really know how to do these things.

Anything coming out of Heritage will be dismissed by critics as right-wing propaganda, but Muhlhausen backs up his findings with masses of data. He also finds comparable results for Republican social programs aimed at reducing teen sexual activity and strengthening families. His overall conclusions, in any case, are not particularly novel or radical.

Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the liberal Brookings Institution's Center on Children and Families, wrote in 2010 that in the 10 most rigorous assessments of individual federal social programs, "nine of these evaluations found weak or no positive effects." When I contacted Ron Haskins, a welfare expert also at Brookings, he cited a few successful ventures but said, "I generally agree that social programs do not work."

No quantity of stirring words or noble intentions can justify expensive measures that leave little trace behind. Our elected officials generally agree that withholding money from social programs shortchanges the poor. They fail to notice that for the most part, providing money has the same effect.

Steve Chapman

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

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