Head Start Fraud

It’s been a tough week for the Department of Health and Human Services. As I discussed earlier, the Government Accountability Office reported on fraud problems with the Child Care and Development Fund program. Another new report from the GAO finds fraud problems with HHS’s Head Start program.

GAO investigators attempted to register children from fictitious families in Head Start programs in six states and the District of Columbia. The GAO created 13 fictitious families that earned too much income or possessed other characteristics that would disqualify the children from participating in Head Start. The result is embarrassing:

In 8 out of 13 eligibility tests, our families were told they were eligible for the program and instructed to attend class. In all 8 of these cases, Head Start employees actively encouraged our fictitious families to misrepresent their eligibility for the program. In at least 4 cases, documents we later retrieved from these centers show that our applications were doctored to exclude income information for which we provided documentation, which would have shown the family to be over-income. Employees at seven centers knowingly disregarded part of our families’ income to help make over-income families and their children appear to actually be under-income. This would have had the effect of filling slots reserved for under-income children with over-income children. At two centers, staff indicated on application forms that one parent was unemployed, even though we provided documentation of the parents’ income. A Head Start employee at one center even assured us that no one would verify that the income information submitted was accurate.

The GAO finding is not surprising given that previous reports show that HHS does a poor job administering the program.

In 2000, the GAO found that 76 percent of Head Start grantees reviewed were not in compliance with financial management standards. In a subsequent review, more than half remained out of compliance. In 2005, the GAO reported that HHS still couldn’t adequately identify financial management weaknesses of Head Start grantees. In 2008, the GAO reported that HHS still had not undertaken a comprehensive assessment of Head Start’s risks, and said that it had made “little progress” in ensuring that the data it collects from grantees are reliable.

But as a Cato essay on Head Start explains, the program’s biggest problem is that it isn’t effective in helping children from low-income families succeed later in life:

In 2010, HHS released a long-anticipated study of Head Start’s effectiveness, which is the most rigorous analysis to date. The program is supposed to give disadvantaged children a “head start” in life. However, the study found almost no advantages to children in kindergarten and grade one from having gone through Head Start, compared to children who had not.

Of the 112 measurements in the new HHS study—which covered areas such as academics, socio-emotional development, and health—only a handful showed any statistically significant benefit to participants of Head Start. In addition, most measured benefits disappeared once more rigorous statistical methods were applied. In other words, there was virtually no benefit to children of having attended Head Start.

After 45 years and $166 billion in spending, it’s apparent that this Great Society relic isn’t the best way to help disadvantaged children.

Opponents of federal welfare programs are often accused of being unconcerned about the needs of the poor. However, the burden of proof should be on the advocates who claim that federal bureaucracies and concomitant subsidies are the best option for assisting the less fortunate. Head Start, and other smoldering embers from the Great Society’s “War on Poverty,” continues to show otherwise.