Going nowhere fast So many billions, so little to show

April 14, 1996|By Sara Engram

FORGET THE mean-spirited critics of social spending, whether their target is Head Start or Medicaid, welfare payments, food stamps or housing vouchers.

Forget, too, the bleeding hearts who plead that more funding -- more, more, more -- is our last, best hope for solving social ills.

Forget ideology of whatever stripe.

It's time for Americans to ask a practical question: When is this country going to get serious about spending its money effectively? When will it insist that a dollar invested yield at least a dollar's worth of results?

Whatever else you want to say about the American people, we are not stingy. Since President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty, taxpayers have furnished billions of dollars in hopes of making life better for poor Americans and creating a safer, healthier, more equitable and prosperous society.

What have we gotten for our investment? Name virtually any indicator of social pathology or family breakdown -- poverty rates, juvenile crime, children born to unmarried mothers, reports of abuse and neglect, drug addiction, etc. -- and they have gotten worse. Cities are overwhelmed by these problems and middle-class taxpayers, black and white, are fleeing to the suburbs.

Three decades ago, America's congenital optimism was enlisted a historic assault on poverty. To one veteran of those early efforts, it seemed the sky was the limit: ''If you had told me then how many millions of federal dollars would flow into Baltimore in the next 30 years for social spending, I would have bet my life that by now, there couldn't possibly be a single poor person left in this city.''

Indeed, when you think of all the money spent to ease poverty, improve housing, provide health care or protect children and then look at the results, you must wonder: Could we have been any worse off if we had simply handed a handsome check to every poor family in town?

But if things are bad now, the outlook is even worse. Not only have billions of dollars in social spending failed to reduce poverty or shore up our faltering cities, we also face the prospect of continued spending as far into the future as we can see. In return, we get the confident predictions of experts that the problems are likely to get worse.

The boss' questions

What gives here? Imagine the manager of a plant that is essential to the prosperity of a company telling his boss that the operation was losing money and would continue to lose money, despite continuing investments in the plant.

Any boss worth his salt would begin with some tough questions.

He would surely want to see the manager's plan of operation and question him about his goals and objectives. He would ask why last year's goals were not met, and what the manager learned from those failures.

He would examine the product and ask whether it met the needs of the marketplace.

He would ask for specific and detailed plans for spending the company's investments and would make it clear that the manager and all other plant employees would be held accountable for implementing those plans and for overall progress toward meeting the plant's goals.

The notion of running government as a bottom-line business can be stretched too far. But when it comes to social services, public officials have ignored the useful aspects of this analogy -- to the detriment of poor people, taxpayers and the country as a whole.

Are social-service agencies required to have measurable goals and objectives? Are they held accountable for meeting those goals?

No. Holding people accountable is hard. Any failure to reach a goal might be difficult to explain at election time. It's easier to keep the status quo, to let well-intended people stay busy with Band- Aid solutions.

In the weeks ahead, this column will examine the failure of social-services programs to ease the burdens of poverty. Some of the issues are obvious, such as a lack of measurable goals and objectives essential to accountability. In other cases, we will have to search for answers in the blur of bureaucracy -- for instance, in the addiction of bureaucrats to planning and devising new ''models'' at the expense of programs already under way. If problems could be talked to death, or ''modeled'' away, we would be in much better shape. Alas, they can't be.

We will also look at the culture of entitlements emanating from Washington, a system of putting expenditures on auto-pilot that undermines attempts at rigorous management.

Returning to our plant analogy, the easy solution is to close it down -- to say that because social spending has been ineffective, it should cease.

We don't have that luxury. The problems facing our society can no longer be isolated in blighted inner-city neighborhoods. ''Urban'' problems now encompass the suburbs, too, and spill over into outlying communities.

For better or worse, we Americans are all in this together. We have no choice but to make our social programs work. It's time to figure out how to do it.

G; Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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