Penn Researcher Says Government Programs Don’t Work and Suggests a Blueprint for Change

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Media Contact: | | October 28, 2011

Richard Gelles has written a book, and he is pretty sure about one thing: He is going to upset a lot of people — liberals and conservatives alike.

In The Third Lie: Why Government Programs Don’t Work – and a Blueprint for Change, Gelles says that “government programs that are designed to help people actually fail them.  The social policies in this country are a wreck, and it’s time to come up with new ideas, not doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

The title of the book comes from an old joke about the three biggest lies:

  • Of course, I’ll respect you in the morning.
  • The check is in the mail.
  • I am from the government, and I am here to help you.

Gelles, the dean of Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice, questions government programs like Head Start because he says there has been no evidence to suggest it actually works. 

He also calls other programs on the carpet for being ineffective. For example, in Hawaii, where the state’s special-education costs have more than quadrupled since the early ‘90s, there has been no positive impact for the children who receive the costly services, Gelles says.  

He believes that some programs remain in existence because they are based on ideology and not data and because they generate revenue for the agencies that administer the programs and the workers who remain employed as a result.  Many government programs designed to address social ills fail, he says, and will never succeed because each entity has created its own self-serving and self-protecting bureaucracy that keeps the program in operation. 

But Gelles also points to three government programs that he considers successful: the G.I. Bill, Social Security and Medicare. 

He said these programs share three winning attributes:

• They provide for a specific population without a “means test” or some other type of complex targeting.

• They have a minimum eligibility test, for example, serving in the military or turning a certain age.

• Because of the two previous reasons, these three programs require relatively small bureaucracies to support them.


In The Third Lie, Gelles points to what does not work, what does work and how successful elements of the effective programs can be incorporated into future social policies and programs.

In a “children’s futures account” chapter, Gelles proposes investing in programs that would benefit all economic groups. 

“At age 18, each child would have access to an account of about $54,000.  The money can be used for only two things -- any kind of higher education or trade training or for a down payment on a house,” he says.

Gelles fully expects criticism from all sides.

The Democrats, he says, want to continue what has been unsuccessful in the past while expecting different results, and the Republicans want to modify the few government programs that do work—such as having an upper income limit for Social Security benefits.

“This book does not favor the right, nor the left.  Yes, it will make people angry.  But, change comes from conflict, ” he says. “This book is an original, unorthodox analysis of what ails us as nation and how we might regain our economic, social and political health.”

Gelles also contends that the current economic situation has destroyed the middle class. 

“I believe that the key to success for any government effort is the support of a vital, vibrant middle class.   The current economic crisis persists because what is left of the middle class is afraid to spend, afraid to invest and afraid they are a step away from poverty.  To succeed, government policy must address this reality,” Gelles writes.

A prominent researcher in domestic violence and child-welfare policy, Gelles spent seven years writing The Third Lie.

He came to Penn in 1999 and has been dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice since 2003. He holds the Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence and is a faculty director for Penn’s Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research

His first book, The Violent Home (1974), was the first systematic investigation to provide empirical data on domestic violence.  More recent books, such as The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children’s Lives (1996) and Current Controversies on Domestic Violence (2005), have also addressed child welfare and family violence. 

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