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Head Start, Food Stamps, and Libertarians


New reports were recently published about the effectiveness of two long-standing and familiar government programs: Head Start and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly and still informally known as food stamps. There is nothing unusual about that. Such reports are issued all the time by agencies in the government and organizations outside of it. Few ever read them, as they are typically long and boring, and most of the time the reports are either never heard of or ignored.

I normally don’t pay too much attention to them. But as a critic of government programs in general and those that redistribute wealth in particular, I am compelled to sometimes look over such reports to see what the government has been up to during the period covered by the report. Although the two reports in question have nothing to do with politics or political philosophy, they are the perfect vehicle to illustrate the differences between liberals, conservatives, and libertarians.

Within the federal Department of Health and Human Services is the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). The stated mission of the ACF is to promote “the economic and social well-being of families, children, individuals and communities.” Head Start is part of the Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center (ECLKC) of the ACF. It is a “federal program that promotes the school readiness of children ages birth to five from low-income families by enhancing their cognitive, social, and emotional development.” The program provides “comprehensive services to enrolled children and their families, which include health, nutrition, social, and other services determined to be necessary by family needs assessments, in addition to education and cognitive development services.” Although it is a federal program, Head Start is administered by local nonprofit organizations and school systems. More than one million children participate in it each year.

The Head Start program was instituted in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. It began as an eight-week summer program to get kids ready for kindergarten. Like most federal programs, it expanded rapidly. In 1966, it became a year-round program. In 1977, it added bilingual and bi-cultural programs. In 1997, the Early Head Start program was established to serve children from birth to three years of age. In 1998, Head Start expanded to permit full-day and full-year participation. In 2007, the program began including homeless children. Most recently, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 added 64,000 slots for Early Head Start and Head Start programs. Head Start is an $8 billion-per-year federal program.

SNAP, or the food stamp program, is administered by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The stated mission of the FNS is “to increase food security and reduce hunger by providing children and low-income people access to food, a healthful diet and nutrition education in a way that supports American agriculture and inspires public confidence.” The FNS actually administers a number of food-related programs in addition to food stamps: the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Recipients of SNAP benefits receive a deposit on an EBT card each month that can be used only for prepackaged food items. Although SNAP is a federal program, it is operated by the 50 states.

The first food stamp program was temporary, lasting from 1939 to 1943. A pilot program was operated from 1961 to 1964. The program was made permanent in 1964 and has been expanded greatly since then. During George W. Bush’s tenure in office, the number of Americans on food stamps rose from 17 million in fiscal year 2001 to 33 million in fiscal year 2009. During Barack Obama’s first term in office, the number of people on food stamps increased by approximately 11,130 per day. According to SNAP monthly data, as of October 2012 (the latest figures available) there were 47,525,329 people in 22,932,705 households receiving an average monthly benefit of $133.48 per person, or $276.62 per household. For fiscal year 2012, the federal government spent a record $74.6 billion on the food stamp program.

The report on the Head Start program is Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study Final Report issued by the ACF’s Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation. According to a summary, the study tracked the progress of 5,000 children

who were randomly assigned to either a group receiving Head Start services or a group that did not participate in Head Start. It followed their progression from ages three or four through the end of third grade. The third-grade evaluation is a continuation to HHS’ [sic] first-grade study, which followed children through the end of first grade.

The study found that “there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through third grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.”

The study concluded that although “there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start,” by the end of 3rd grade “there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices.” And the few impacts that were found “did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.”

The report on the food stamp program is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Examining the Evidence to Define Benefit Adequacy. Commissioned by the Department of Agriculture, the report was undertaken by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. It found, among other things, that SNAP allotments were based on inconsistencies, outdated information, and false assumptions; that food prices, even though they vary substantially across geographic regions, are adjusted only for Alaska and Hawaii; that the maximum SNAP benefit may not always be sufficient to allow participants to purchase the food components and prepare the meals specified by the government’s Thrifty Food Plan; and that there is a notable lag in benefit adjustment that can significantly reduce the purchasing power of SNAP allotments.

The most important thing about the reports is not that they show the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of Head Start and the food stamp program, although those things are certainly true. The most important thing about them has nothing to do with Head Start and food stamps at all. As mentioned above, even though the two reports have nothing to do with politics or political philosophy, they are the perfect vehicle to illustrate the differences between liberals, conservatives, and libertarians.

It is no secret that liberals fully support the instituting of federal programs such as Head Start and food stamps. It is also no secret that they fully support the continued expansion of such programs. It allows them to be seen as saviors who care for people, have compassion on the poor, and fight against injustice and inequality. Of course, both programs also foster dependency on the government and are a way to ensure a steady stream of voters for the Democratic Party.

It is commonly thought that conservatives oppose federal programs such as Head Start and food stamps. That is a great political myth. Although it is true that some conservatives criticize the programs for being inefficient or ineffective, they are not generally philosophically opposed to them.

The conservative icon Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. For the first six years of his presidency, he had a Republican majority in the Senate — the first since the 83rd Congress of 1953-1955 under the Republican president Dwight Eisenhower. Yet not only did Reagan and the conservatives in Congress not take any steps toward eliminating or even cutting Head Start or food stamps, it was under Reagan that Head Start was expanded and had its first billion-dollar budget.

The “Republican Revolution” in the 1994 election brought many conservatives into Congress and gave the Republicans a majority in the House and the Senate — again, the first since the 83rd Congress of 1953-1955 under Eisenhower. For six years the Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress under Bill Clinton. Although Congress instituted the usual reforms to Head Start and, especially, food stamps, both programs thrived under a Republican majority.

Conservatives sometimes dismiss whatever happened or didn’t happen during those two celebrated periods in their history because they didn’t have the whole shebang — Republican control of the House, the Senate, and the presidency. That all changed with the election of George W. Bush in 2000. For more than four years of Bush’s presidency, the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate and had more self-proclaimed conservatives in Congress than at any time in history. They could have enacted a conservative revolution that overturned much of Johnson’s Great Society. The reality, however, is that the Head Start and food stamp programs continued full speed ahead.

Along the way, conservatives inside and outside of the Congress called for reforms, reductions, and restrictions to entitlement programs. They sought to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of programs such as Head Start and SNAP. They even railed against the widespread fraud in the food stamp program. But they really have no philosophical objection to the programs themselves. They might argue with liberals over the particulars of the programs or the amount they should be funded, but they have no principled argument against them. And most disputes about funding arise only because conservatives want to increase government spending on their pet causes, such as defense, the space program, or foreign aid. If the above-mentioned reports had nothing but favorable things to say about Head Start and food stamps, then most conservatives wouldn’t even mention the programs.

In contrast with the liberals and conservatives are the libertarians. They oppose programs such as Head Start and food stamps not just because they are inefficient or ineffective, but because they are fundamentally immoral wealth-redistribution schemes. And not only has the federal government been given no authority by the Constitution to institute or operate such programs, it is not the purpose of government to do so in the first place. It is in fact a perversion of government to do so.

Obviously, to the libertarian there should be no Head Start or food stamp programs of any kind at any level of funding. But that’s not all. There should be no Federal Nutrition Service (FNS) or Administration for Children & Families (ACF). But even that is not going far enough. The federal departments of Health and Human Service and Agriculture should not even exist in the first place.

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