Spending That Makes Us Feel Good . . . and Accomplishes Nothing Else

Written by Jeff Johnson on June 2, 2010. Posted in Golden Hydrant

goldenhydrantGolden Hydrant goes to extension of ineffective teen pregnancy program

The newest Golden Fire Hydrant goes to the county’s “Better Together Hennepin: Healthy Youth, Healthy Communities” teen pregnancy prevention program. Last week the board voted 6 -1 to extend the program two years and spend another $518,000 (for a 4-year total of $1.1 million), despite receiving a report on the program showing it’s doing little or nothing to change the sexual behavior of the kids in the program.

“Better Together Hennepin” actually consists of several different teen pregnancy prevention programs that the county has been funding for two years – apparently to little success. Included are education and outreach programs through several different vendors, including Planned Parenthood, the Annex Teen Clinic and the Storefront Group. Also, the program includes funding two half-time sex education teachers in the Richfield and Brooklyn Center public schools.

The board chose to fund these programs for another two years despite seeing outcome studies that show they are ineffective in changing kids’ sexual behavior. This decision is a great example of government throwing money at a problem because it makes us feel good to be doing SOMETHING, even if that something is having no positive effect.

The report shows six statistically significant changes in behavior for those kids in the program – three are arguably positive changes and three are clearly negative changes. I focus only on those changes in behavior that are statistically significant, not on statistically insignificant results or on purported changes in kids’ attitudes about or knowledge of sex.

The arguably positive behavioral outcomes:

1. Kids in the program reported an increase in condom use when having sex. Specifically, THREE more kids reported using condoms after going through the program than reported using them before the program began. So, after spending about $600,000 over two years, one of the purported successes of this program is that three kids who were not using condoms before the program claim to now use them.

2. Several kids reported having talked to their parents about sex after going through the program. The specific numbers: 10 or 11 kids in 9th grade and 7 kids in 10th grade. I don’t discount this outcome. If it’s true, I believe it is a genuinely positive outcome of the program. We will never know if those conversations actually changed any of these kids’ sexual behavior or not, but kids talking to parents is a positive outcome.

3. The Annex Teen Clinic reported an increase in the number of teen visits after the program began. There are no numbers in the report and I don’t know if those visits led to positive changes in sexual behavior or not, but this would be the third arguably positive result touted by supporters of this program.

One caveat about the results in 1 and 2 above: they are not verifiable. We are relying solely on what these kids tell us, recognizing, of course, that most sexually active teenagers are beyond reproach and would never think of fibbing to an adult.

The negative behavioral outcomes:

1. More kids in the program ended up failing other classes than those in the control group.

2. More kids in the program skipped school than those in the control group (possibly because they were busy having sex – with condoms, of course).

3. More kids in the program reported using marijuana for the first time during the course of the program than kids in the control group.

I don’t believe Better Together Hennepin was the cause of these three negative behavioral outcomes, but if we are going to tout the program as leading to the arguably positive outcomes, consistency requires us to attribute the negative outcomes to the program, as well.

Based on what the reports show, our investment in the program the past two years was a complete wash, and possibly more negative than positive.

I’ve had concerns about Better Together Hennepin in the past. In fact, the very first Golden Hydrant went to the small portion of this program funding the two teachers in Richfield and Brooklyn Center, not based on the efficacy of the program (as we had no outcome studies at that point), but based on the simple fact that counties in Minnesota should not be funding public school teachers.

I also have problems using property tax dollars to fund abortion providers and question whether the program’s practice of teaching teenagers that sex is only safe with a condom and then telling them where to get free condoms might actually have some negative consequences.

If, however, these outcome studies had shown that the program was actually changing kids’ behavior in a positive way, I would probably have quietly voted “no” based on my other concerns and moved on.

Instead we have outcome studies that show dismal results – at the very best.

We love to talk about measurable outcomes these days on the county board. The talk rings hollow, however, if we ignore negative measurable outcomes in order to vote for programs because they make us feel good.

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