Magazine article The American Prospect

The Fleece Police

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Fleece Police

Article excerpt

It's Wednesday night on the NBC Nightly News--time for yet another installment of "The Fleecing of America," the weekly series on government waste. Tonight's episode stars a job training program in Puerto Rico, designed to move seasonal farm workers off welfare and into better-paying, permanent work. "Nothing wrong with that, right?" Tom Brokaw asks. "Well," he frowns, "in Puerto Rico it can be much more expensive than effective." Correspondent Robert Hager reports that much of the money earmarked for job training each year goes for teaching routine farm work: "chores most farm hands, even backyard gardeners, learn on their own--work so basic you'd hardly expect the U.S. government to spend millions training people to do it."

Sure enough, of the 1,125 workers who participated, only 37 got new, higher-paying jobs--and just 17 of them managed to keep those positions. That's $305,000 per job, Hager tells us, with a helpful graphic in case the point wasn't clear. A brief interview with government officials follows. "We think it's correctable," one says sheepishly. Then Hager cuts to the chase: "Labor now promises tighter controls plus an end to farm training for unskilled chores, but that's after it's own auditors said it was a waste--a $7 million fleecing--that put taxpayers out to pasture."

Watching stories like these night after night, it's tempting to believe that Washington can do nothing right--that most government programs are just "good intentions gone wrong at a high cost to the taxpayer," to borrow Brokaw's phrase. But is America really getting fleeced? Let's go to the videotape--or, more precisely, the cutting-room floor. NBC didn't mention that the Puerto Rico program was part of a national program for training migrant workers. Getting people off welfare is inherently difficult, yet the General Accounting Office and the Rockefeller Foundation have cited other elements of this particular program as model welfare-to-work initiatives. The national program for migrant workers costs about $80 million--out of a roughly $1.5 trillion federal budget--and by most accounts all except the $7 million on Puerto Rico was well spent.

Hager's story omitted another crucial tidbit: Puerto Rico's unemployment rate is a staggering 13 percent, and it reaches 20 percent in the rural areas served by this training program. Much of the island's population is undereducated--the average migrant worker has a fifth-grade reading level--and at least some of the "misdirected" money was spent on basic literacy schooling. It seems a few local officials decided it was more worthwhile to teach workers how to read and write than to train them for jobs that weren't available anyway. That stretched the intent of the program, but would you really call it a fleecing?

One more subtlety that never came across in the story was the federal government's affirmative role in bringing the Puerto Rico situation to light. It was the Labor Department that first asked its inspector general to investigate the program's disappointing results three years ago, and, ironically enough, the ensuing critical report provided the grist for NBC's story. Hager did credit an "internal audit" as his source, but only the most attentive viewer would have made the connection. The segment's tone screamed bureaucratic ineptitude, not government fixing a problem.

Ironically, there was a good, hard-hitting story here, waiting to be told. At a time when many officials (particularly at the Labor Department) have seized upon training as a panacea for unemployment and falling wages, the Puerto Rico story could have served as a case study in why job training is insufficient in the absence of broader economic action--or why training programs involving employer subsidies are prone to abuse without sufficient control from Washington. But NBC was not looking for an insightful look at the pitfalls of training or the perils of devolution; it just wanted cheap indignation at the public sector's expense. …

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