The US Department of Agriculture conducted a large experiment with school breakfast programs in public schools from 1999 to 2003, alternately providing either universal breakfasts or breakfast-in-class programs aimed at both expanding access and eliminating the stigma associated with the school breakfast program. Policymakers have long been concerned with low participation rates in the breakfast program and these experiments were designed to combat that problem.
It worked: participation in the school breakfast programs rose. The problem, a new study finds, is that the expanded participation brought largely no benefit to those it was intended to help.
As authors Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Mary Zaki of Northwestern University write:
Despite the increase in breakfast consumption under BIC, we find no positive impact on most other outcomes. In contrast to the earlier, quasi-experimental literature, we find no positive impact on test scores and some evidence of negative impacts. Similarly, there appears to be no overall positive impact on attendance rates or child health. There is suggestive evidence that BIC may improve behavior and health in some highly disadvantaged subgroups, though.
The authors urge that their results don't speak against the effectiveness of the school breakfast program as constituted, but merely against efforts to expand the program. They find that the increase in participation resulted largely from students who merely substituted school breakfasts for those they were already getting at home - and that a certain percentage of the increase in participation was from some children eating two breakfasts. The authors write that "the realtively modest measured benefits suggest that policymakers should carefully consider how to trade these off against the increased program costs."
Author James Bovard recently noted:
A 2006 Journal of the American Dietetic Association study concluded that "making universal-free school breakfast available" failed to change "students' dietary outcomes" or reduce the number of kids who skipped breakfast. Similarly, a 2006 Journal of Child Nutrition and Management study and a recent University of North Carolina study concluded that providing universal free breakfasts failed to improve academic performance.
This is a relatively small issue - "efforts to expand access to the federally-provided school breakfast program have largely been ineffective" - but it speaks to the challenge conservatives face in the public policy arena. Some children, and especially at-risk children from low-income families, are malnourished and the federal government has attempted to come up with a policy to increase participation rates in a program aimed at combating the problem; who could be against that?! But it turns out that federal efforts in this arena have been largely a waste of money, and sometimes actively harmful to the very children it's intended to help.
Pointing out that a relatively small program with a modest budget aimed at helping poor, at-risk children might be a waste of money is going to be unpopular. But one small, ineffective, well-intentioned program here, another small, ineffective, well-intentioned program there, and suddenly we're looking at a large, ineffective, well-intentioned government leviathan. In an era where the deciding electoral metric is "cares about people like me," it's hard to build a message that all those well-intentioned programs might not actually work well.