Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Big Sister is Watching: TNR's Jon Cohn is excited by Howard Dean's "Success by Six" plan, a big-government disaster waiting to happen:
The first step in this initiative would be to establish a national program for "Welcome Baby" visits. Under the program, local communities would offer new parents home visits by professional child experts. (It could be anybody from a registered nurse to a volunteer from the United Way; local officials implementing the program would decide.) These experts would bring along literature on things like child safety and nutrition, then offer to put parents in touch with local government and non-profit agencies in case they need some sort of assistance. Lest anybody think this sounds like Big Brother run amok, the program would be strictly voluntary in every sense: Each city (or county) could decide for itself whether to join the program--the feds would simply offer financing--and each parent could decide for his or herself whether to accept the visit.
No it's not Big Brother; more like Big Sister, or Big Auntie. Let's look at some of those elements. First of all, it's a door-to-door sales plan for social programs ("Did you know you qualify for foodstamps?" the nice lady asked), a convenient foot in the door. Second, the "voluntary" part doesn't pass the smell test. Local officials would decide who delivers the services? Maybe for now; wait until one state outperforms another. At some point, a mandate will be issued to accompany such a program. Do you doubt it? Even unofficially, a mandate already exists: Each case worker, hawking voluntary participation, will probably be deputized as a social services reporter -- someone required to report anything suspicious in your house. In the past, such reports have used everything from child abuse (even spanking) to general tidiness to open the door to mandated DSS visits. Surprise! In the very next paragraph, Cohn admits that these things are the real point of the plan anyway:
The biggest advantage of this program is that it offers a chance for early intervention in those rare cases of severe neglect or abuse. (That alone should justify the program's relatively tiny budget, just $200 million a year.) It's also a great opportunity to make sure children eligible for public assistance--like, for example, subsidized health insurance--actually receive it.
That's a lot of money to go out hunting "rare" cases of neglect and abuse. Remember, too, that this year's $200 million "voluntary" program is next year's $2 billion program . . . or unfunded mandate. Cohn says so himself:
One New England state [Surprise again! It's Howie's Vermont!] implemented a very similar program back in the early 1990s. Today, 90 percent of all new mothers in the state opt for the visits.
Hmmm. Did that $200 million price tag account for a 90% participation rate? What do you think?

Then comes the speech to disguise the white-man's burden issue: it's not just for at-risk families!

But it's not just poor or abused kids who benefit from these visits. Parents from all backgrounds can attest to the overwhelming sense of confusion and insecurity when a new baby arrives, particularly if it's a first child: Am I feeding my baby the right foods? Is this sound normal? And so on. Welcome Baby visits are like pediatric house calls.
You know, I had a lot of those questions when my son was young, too. I asked my mother. I asked friends. I read books about it. (And I asked the pediatrician -- sans house call, by the way.) I have questions about pet care, too. Should taxpayers foot the bill for an early intervention program so I know about 2-in-1 collars? In other words, the fact that one has questions is not, in itself, an argument for the government being the answer desk. And, really, most people don't require social service visits for questions like "Am I feeding my baby the right foods?" and "Is this sound normal?"

Cohn's argument hits all the right notes for a third-way, quasi-socialistic (i.e., boasting voluntary participation and a suprisingly low claimed cost) initiative. The tune is still ugly, though.

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