social programs, as seen by the press and by blogs

I’m still brooding about Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article on Harlem Children’s Zone (see my previous comment). HCZ is a nonprofit that provides a wide range of services to most of the kids in Central Harlem. City governments often provide similar combinations of services for their residents. But governments always fail, whereas HCZ is successful–right?

Actually, there is very little outcome data available for HCZ. I cited the test scores of kids leaving its preschool program, because these data are listed on the HCZ website (see this report, p. 5). There are a few other outcome measures in the same document. For instance, the rate of health insurance coverage rose from 95% to 97%. This is not exactly earth-shattering. And most of the other data in the report concern “performance” rather than “outcomes”: 1,982 children were screened for asthma, 2,150 books were “made available,” etc.

Any municipal government could assemble much longer lists of this type and also cite compelling “outcome” measures for some of its programs. So why does HCZ rate a cover-story in the Times Magazine? Perhaps …

  • HCZ’s leader, Geoffrey Canada, is a wonderful human being (I don’t doubt this), and reporters can grasp personalities better than programs. By the way, there are many wonderful human beings in the public sector, too. I happened to meet several examples a few weeks ago in Southeast Washington, DC–talented officials who are totally committed to the welfare of the kids in their neighborhoods.
  • HCZ has a high-powered, private-sector board, which knows how to get media attention.
  • HCZ has set inspiring targets, but it is not yet at the point where its actual perfomance can be measured.
  • The point of this list is not to criticize Harlem Children’s Zone, nor am I interested in arguing that local governments do a better job than is generally recognized. In my own thinking, I have incorporated the assumption that traditional welfare programs and schools are largely broken, at least in the inner cities. My concern, therefore, is not ideological but epistemological. I am worried that we do not have reliable ways to understand the performance of local governments, whether they work well or badly. Even people who specialize in social policy must rely on middle-brow publications like The New York Times for a general picture of what’s going on across the whole range of social issues. And such publications generally do a poor job in describing and assessing all social programs, but especially those in the public sector. They mainly cover public agencies when officials are indicted, sued, or otherwise enmeshed in the legal system, because reporters have easy access to police and court records. Insightful stories about day-to-day work in local government are extremely rare. And again–I don’t want more good news, just more substance.

    Everyone now recognizes the failures of the mainstream media, and many people hope that the Internet will fill some important gaps. In particular, one would expect that left-of-center bloggers would rush to describe the government programs, nonprofit associations, social movements, and unions that are usually overlooked in major newspapers. They would want to report good news, because they have an interest in countering the dominant assumption that government programs always fail. And they would would want to report failures, because they have an interest in creating better programs. However, there is very little such reporting in the “blogosphere.”

    I can sometimes get the attention of the Web’s big guns if I opine on political philosophy in relatively general terms. Such editorializing can get me mentioned on Volokh, Crooked Timber, the Decembrist, or Matthew Yglesias. But when I write about day-to-day social work, such as this interesting experiment in municipal government in Washington, no one in the blogosphere seems to notice. Clearly, the reason could be my lack of reportorial skill; I’m no journalist, and I don’t know how to make these examples vivid. However, the important question is not about me; it’s about the whole range of leftish blogs. Where are the Web-based chroniclers of the public sector? Who’s visiting charter schools and telling us how they work? Who’s reporting from welfare offices and health clinics? I would trade a hundred pages of rants against George W. Bush for one site that kept me informed about what works and doesn’t work “on the ground” in our inner cities.

    [Added on June 25: Anna (in a comment) links to “Respectful of Otters, a blog that reports from the frontlines of social work. I’m sure there are other examples.]

    12 thoughts on “social programs, as seen by the press and by blogs

    1. Hellmut Lotz

      Evaluation requires resources, may be even an organization. That goes beyond the capacity of any blogger.

    2. Peter Levine

      I wasn’t thinking of formal evaluation (with pre-test and post-test data, control and comparison groups, random assignment, etc). Valuable as true evaluation is, it’s beyond the range of a blogger. Instead, I meant eye-witness descriptions of programs, site visits, interviews with practitioners and beneficiaries, and informal evaluations.

    3. Hellmut Lotz

      That is still a lot of work that will take a lot of time. Spending time requires at least a paycheck.

    4. Anna

      Well, you have people like Rivka, Tough on Crime May 21 post (advocating a high-risk parental support program that seemed very effective as prevention) here – – but I could swear (but not find URL, sorry) that there was a news report in last month or so that a similar program (or same?) was evaluated and not found to be effective.

      In general when judging the efficacy of social work by the writings of social workers I’d guess that there will be a lot of noise (i.e. not clear signal), given that the writer will be someone with a personal (emotional) vested interest in focusing on the positive.

      Not to disparage Rivka, who is good. I particularly liked her “hey, look at all the white people” post on New Urbanism here –

    5. Anna

      On the other hand, see the bottom of this (June 17) post on canvassing for nonprofits. Sad.

    6. Peter Levine

      Thanks for the link to “Respectful of Otters”; it’s just the kind of report we need. The author is a “psychologist working in HIV research and treatment in the inner city”–in other words, a leftist blogger who’s actually on the front lines, keeping her eyes open, learning from experience.

      The link in Anna’s second post is to a disgruntled former PIRG canvasser. I like and work with the national PIRGs. This particular blogger sounds a little untrustworthy to me. However, there are valid criticisms of canvassing as a form of civic and political engagement. CIRCLE is funding a researcher to interview a random sample of PIRG canvassers; we’ll see what it shows.

    7. praktike

      The key is to find your community. The only way to attract the bigs is to link to one of their posts, call them a moron, and then switch gears and talk about what you want to talk about.

    8. niq

      Peter —

      I think some of your observations here may be part of a wider trend. Please forgive me for using a David Brooks-sized paintbrush here.

      I suspect that much of the left half of the ‘sphere is populated by upper middle class social liberals who think economic conservatism is immoral. Many of them/us have at least a minor interest in law (particularly appellate law — which is much more an academic legal exercise than practical one) or macroeconomics. So it’s those issues that get the focus rather than actual tangible social work.

      Someone on the sphere — I forget who — made the point that a number of bloggers think the center-left should form an alliance with libertarians. But the libertarian class is mostly white upper middle class who stands to gain almost nothing from improved government social policy, and furthermore is ideologically opposed to its existence. The socially conservative/moderate working class, on the other hand, has lots of economic motivation to vote Democratic.

      So social work, like union issues, often get the short shrift in favor of more abstract discussion.

      I might add that between poor foreign policy and a lack of effort on the right to engage in any substantive discussion on domestic policy, discussions on how to make domestic policy work better seem … quaint.

    9. Kautilyan

      Harlem’s Children Zone

      Peter Levine has a couple of posts (here and here) that discuss a New York Times magazine article from a few weeks ago that discusses an innovative approach to tackling the problems facing poor children in Harlem.

    10. Peter Levine

      I want to apologize for saying (above) that the blogger who criticized the PIRGs (his name turns out to be William Gillis) “sounds a little untrustworthy to me.” I really had no basis for that remark, and Gillis later sent me a nice and interesting email. He has a valuable blog. He and I agree that one person’s take on the PIRG experience proves nothing by itself; nevertheless, his testimony is surely sincere.

      — Peter

    11. Joan West

      I can’t access the Williams Gillis blog (url won’t work), so I don’t know if I’m repeating someone, but my personal experience as a canvasser for a PIRG was hell. I worked throughout the summer of 2003 and when I totalled my earnings over the time I spent, I basically made $3.60 an hour. They hired me as a “field manager” but that didnt mean I needed to be more creative or intelligent, that just meant they expected my to work longer (unpaid) hours. This was a job that was supposed to pay for my living expenses and the apartment I sublet.

      We did street canvassing, so that meant I had to approach people on the street (read: they were trying to go somewhere else) and ask them to become members of PIRG. Becoming a member entailed giving me their credit card information… how many of you would give that out to someone on the street? Yes, I was paid on comission. Only 10% of one-time cash donations, and about $40 per member I signed up. I counted myself lucky if I got one member a day. I would lead a group of about four people out onto the streets, for six hours everyday. We weren’t supposed to have a lunch break. We were told to bring lunches and eat them on the bus. I, as “field manager,” usually let people have a lunch break anyway, but if a director accompanied us, we had to work solidly for the entire afternoon.

      By the way, you were fired if you didn’t meet a certain weekly quota. 4 members a week, no exceptions. No questions asked. Didn’t matter how long you had been with the organization. “Buh-bye,” was all you got. So you can imagine there was a fairly high turnover rate in the office. I met at least 15 new people each monday and more than half of them were gone by thursday. So, every day I had to come in at 8 a.m. and spend two and a half hours training the newcomers on our issues and “the rap,” by which I mean the rehearsed sales-pitch you had to give to prospective donors on the street. If you didn’t memorize the rap (word for word) they would fire you. We were told not to tell anybody anything that wasn’t in the rap, or to ever express our own opinions. In addition, I also had to work at least 2 hours afterwards filling in information into the PIRG database.

      You weren’t allowed to take days off. If you didn’t work five days a week, you would be fired. If you were sick, or had a prior engangement, you had to work weekends to make up for it. PIRG would not give me the Monday off on the Fourth of July weekend so that I could visit my grandmother, even though at that point I was their most senior student employee.

      Sometimes I tried to be active in other PIRG activities besides canvassing. One day I spoke at an EPA convention on diesel fuel, and another time I helped organize a press conference on merucury in a local lake. Even though I worked all day in those instances, PIRG still made me come in on the weekend and canvass, to make up for the days I had “missed.”

      I am an undergraduate at the number one liberal arts college in the country. I wanted to work for PIRG because I had this idealism that the work I did that summer would make a difference. Instead I felt bitter and tricked. I could barely pay my bills, I had to quit the rugby team I joined, and I was too exhausted after a day of work to even enjoy myself. I was treated as if I had absolutely no qualifications, when in fact I’m an environmental studies and political science double major. I felt like I could write an expose about how shitty this activist group treated its workers.

      I will never work for or contribute to PIRG again, and this past school year I was influential in kicking MASSPIRG off of our term bills and out of our campus.

      They need to make a lot of changes if they ever want to be considered a viable “public interest” group.


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