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June 22, 2004

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.]

    Posted by peterlevine at 10:30 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

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