Daniel Stid is a partner in The Bridgespan Group, a non-profit organization that provides advisory and consultancy services to philanthropists and non-profits. Stid leads Bridgespan’s performance measurement practice. The following piece is the author’s opinion and does not represent the views of the Washington Post.
In his January 17th, 1961 farewell address President Dwight D. Eisenhower presciently warned of a growing “military-industrial complex,” consisting of an elaborate network of stakeholders in both private industry and government. Their mutually reinforcing interests largely insulated them from the presidents, taxpayers, and voters with alternative designs for the use of public resources. Remarking on the resulting tradeoffs in an April 16, 1953 speech before the Society of Newspaper Editors, Eisenhower observed that, “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
However, an odd mirror image of this huge complex has emerged in the very “industry” that seeks to feed, clothe and otherwise meet the needs of the poor and vulnerable in our society. It’s a social services-industrial complex, if you will, one that could prove even more difficult to subdue than its military counterpart.
I am not suggesting the nation’s homeless shelters or after-school programs are equivalent to large, private defense contractors in either their influence or motives. However, according to the Urban Institute, in 2009, human service nonprofits entered into more than $100 billion worth of contracts and grant agreements with government agencies in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, in May 2011, nearly 1.9 million people were employed in community and social services occupations, earning an average annual wage of $43,830.
One doesn’t have to impugn the motives of the individuals and nonprofits working in this industry to observe that, in the aggregate, they consistently behave like other industries: working closely with elected officials and government agencies to preserve the government funding that supports their work. The result is ingrained inertia that makes it harder to shift resources to programs that could provide better outcomes and do so more efficiently.
In May 2010, Jon Baron, president of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, and the Brookings Institution’s Isabel Sawhill, who also sits on the board of the Coalition, observed that since 1990, the federal government has put 10 entire social programs through rigorous evaluations using the “gold standard” of randomized control trials. In 9 out of 10 instances, Baron and Sawhill noted that the evaluations found in aggregate “weak or no positive effects” for the programs being assessed, including Head Start, Upward Bound, Job Corps, and 21st Century Community Learning Centers. While some specific interventions within these broad programs were making a difference, the programs’ overall effects were negligible. The one positive exception was Early Head Start, a variant of the main program for children age 0-3. Yet the federal government continues to spend billions on these other programs each year.