SEX EDUCATION abstinence programs do not work. Or so the government now tells us.
For the last five years, the government spent $500 million on educational programs pushing sexual abstinence. With the program set to expire, Congress recently debated whether to extend it for another five years. Many Democrats oppose "abstinence only," arguing it unrealistic, while conservative Republicans want the program to continue.
But, do the programs "work"? A government-commissioned report concluded, "Most studies of abstinence education programs have methodological flaws that prevent them from generating reliable estimates of program impacts."
In 1999, high school students and graduating seniors reported a slight decline in sexual activity. But given the number of variables involved, the report could not attribute the drop-off to the abstinence-only programs.
Other studies concluded the opposite – that of sexual education programs, the abstinence-only approach shows the most promise. In October 1994, Atlantic Monthly discussed the failure of so-called "comprehensive sex education" to reduce teen sex and teen pregnancy. But encouraging teens to swear off sex appeared to work better. The article talked about an Atlanta, Ga., program called Postponing Sexual Involvement. "Its goal," said the magazine, "is to help boys and girls resist pressures to engage in sex. The classes are led by popular older teenagers who teach middle-schoolers how to reject sexual advances and refuse sexual intercourse. Boys practice resisting pressure from other boys. Thus teaching sexually active middle school students to engage in protected intercourse is likely to be more difficult and less successful than teaching abstinent students to continue refraining from sex."
But since when did government programs need to "work"? The list of programs that fail, whose unintended consequences exacerbate problems, simply boggles the mind.
Take the recently expanded Title I. Secretary of Education Rod Paige once said, "After spending $125 billion over 25 years, we have virtually nothing to show for it. Fewer than a third of fourth-graders can read at grade level."
What about bilingual education? After California voters stormed to the polls and rejected bilingual education, the education establishment seemed stunned when Spanish-speaking kids, post-bilingual education, dramatically improved their English language skills. Ken Noonan, founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators, admitted that he was wrong, "I thought (eliminating bilingual education) would hurt kids. The exact reverse occurred, totally unexpected by me."
What about the $110 billion of taxpayers' money spent over decades on renewable fuels or alternative energy sources? Congress, ignoring the laws of supply and demand, spent this gargantuan sum to attain energy independence. But, so far, the government – or rather, the taxpayer – has struck out. "We make the wrong bet," said UC Berkeley physicist Daniel M. Kammen. "We use R&D money to try to pick winners by pouring tons of money into big projects, rather than funding lots of different research and letting the marketplace pick the winners."
What about things like mandated safety helmets for bicycle riders? Do they "work"? In fact, since 19 states now require helmets for bicycle riders, rates of head injuries increased, even as bicycle riding declined. "People tend to engage in risky behavior when they are protected," says Robert Hartwig, chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute. "It's a ubiquitous human trait."
What about the Americans With Disabilities Act? Recently, President Bush praised the act, signed into law by his father. In the nine years following the passage of the 1990 law, unemployment among working-age people with disabilities increased 12 percent. Thomas DeLeire, professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, says, "It's likely that the ADA led to people with disabilities being perceived as more expensive for employers, both because of the potential litigation and the costs of accommodations." After controlling for education, age, type of disability and other factors, DeLeire found an 8 percent drop in employment of disabled men, ages 18 to 65, from 1990 to 1995.
What about the law that increased unemployment benefits for workers affected by Sept. 11? Again, does expanding benefits accomplish their objective – do they "work"? People tend to procrastinate in looking for work until their unemployment benefits run out. Larry Katz, the chief economist at the Labor Department during the Clinton administration, found that workers are almost three times more successful in finding jobs when benefits are just about to run out.
So here's the drill. Congress passes laws, never mind the impact. Congress sometimes studies the impact of laws, frequently ignoring its findings. And, written in government-speak, reports often serve to confuse, confound and, every now and then, entertain.
For example, one government study injected deadly gas into a cage of laboratory rats, killing all. The report's conclusion? The experiment induced a "100 percent mortality response." Gotta love it.