Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I Thought Failure Was an Orphan?

It’s been a tough week for Jim Oberstar.

He was the leader of the
Catholic Democrats in Congress back in 2010, when ObamaCare was ram-rodded through the House. His vote was critical to its passing, and it came with the calming assurance there would be nothing to worry about for those adhering to the Catholic confession. Now, as Chad noted, information is emerging that the religious conscience protections contained in the ObamaCare legislation are as flimsy as the Solyndra business plan.

Another foundation of the Oberstar legacy is the Safe Routes to Schools bill, which attempted to facilitate children walking to school in order to improve their health. He’s got more than his fingerprints on this one, his very DNA is all over it:

Father of 'Safe Routes', Congressman Jim Oberstar, visits a local school

Congressman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), the man whose vision back in 1998 led to the national Safe Routes to Schools program … After seeding several pilot programs in 1998, he helped pass federal legislation for Safe Routes to School to the tune of over $600 million. Today, over 7,000 schools in America benefit from that program.

It all seemed so right at the time. Sure, it cost a few hundred million in 2005 when it was passed. But those were the go-go Bush years of positive economic growth and only half trillion dollar annual deficits. Besides, it was an investment in the children. Anyone who disagreed with this obviously had no heart. Thousands of schools were helped and legions of children are now strolling safely to school, thanks to father Oberstar.

Six years later, that money has been spent. But about those children it was supposed to help? The Pioneer Press provides an update:

… after spending $820 million to promote walking to school and reducing childhood obesity, there is no sign the program has actually added any walkers at all.

Interesting that the cost increased by a couple of hundred million dollars between those two reports, but the number of kids helped has stayed the same. And at the nice round number of zero.

In 1969, 42 percent of children walked or biked to school, according to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership in North Carolina.

By 2001, that number had plummeted to 13 percent. Eight years later, after the program was 4 years old, the number was unchanged.

Compelling evidence of all of that money and effort, wasted. It should be
devastating news for the people responsible. But never underestimate the ability of a bureaucrat to polish a gold-plated turd. About that zero percent growth ...

"We take that to be good news," said partnership director Deb Hubsmith, because the decline has been halted.

It’s not the increase in the number of walkers that matters, it’s the number of walkers who have been created or saved. That excuse for zero growth seems to be getting awfully popular during the Obama era.

The PiPress provides some additional background on the program:

It was created by former Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2000. Oberstar was appalled at the steep increases in childhood obesity and diabetes.

At the same time, he learned that 75 percent of children's trips away from home were in motor vehicles, up from 40 percent in the 1960s. "We have a generation of mobility-challenged children," he said.

The solution? The Safe Routes to School program.
From 2005 through 2010, it was funded for $820 million. Safe Routes gives grants for anything that encourages walking or biking to school - mostly sidewalks, safer street crossings and education. The grants have gone to 11,000 schools in all 50 states.

In other words, a powerful member of the House Transportation Committee takes two disparate data points (rate of diabetes and preferred method of getting to school), concocts a causal relationship between them, and gets busy finding a way to spend nearly a billion dollars on a program to fix it.

No mention is made of any attempt to gather data as to whether this cause and effect relationship exists. Or to analyze whether or not his proposed remedy would work. No, they just went ahead and spent the money on the faith of Oberstar’s convictions. Talk about anti-science.

Alas, now that the money has been spent, information is emerging about the efficacy of Dr. Oberstar’s prescription:

Parents say the approach is wrong. They say their children don't walk because of fear of crime, Minnesota's harsh winters, and laziness. Parents like to pamper their kids by driving them. And many schools are built to discourage walking. So all the sidewalks in the world wouldn't make any difference, said Barbara Smith of Woodbury. (…)

Such fears are a reality of modern life, said Gary Dechaine, transportation director for South Washington County Schools, and he wondered if any federal program could change that. "No parent today would ever have their kid walk six blocks," Dechaine said.

So, it turns out that having a safe route has little to do with kids walking to school. (Let alone whether or not walking to school would lower obesity and diabetes rates.) It’s these types of little details that would be nice to cover BEFORE we agree to borrow $800 million from the Chinese in order to build sidewalks to schools for the purpose of lowering childhood obesity and diabetes rates.

I suppose any parent has a hard time facing the failures of their children. Jim Oberstar is no exception:

Oberstar, the father of the program, acknowledges these objections. But he said his program is making steady progress in wearing down the nation's unhealthy, antiwalking biases.

"We are changing habits of an entire generation," said Oberstar. "It is going to take time - but it is happening."

That sounds exciting, but to put it into context, here are some other things Jim Oberstar is expecting to happen, any time now:

-- early return of Haley's comet
-- Minnesota Vikings win Super Bowl
-- Chaz Bono wins Miss Congeniality award on Dancing with the Stars
-- John Huntsman captures imagination of GOP electorate

If past precedent for government programs is any guide, I predict that after another 10 years of no kids walking to school, Oberstar will break down and admit that the program can't work ... because it's under funded. Another $820 million or so might have done the trick.