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Targeting in Social Programs: Avoiding Bad Bets, Removing Bad Apples

Targeting in Social Programs: Avoiding Bad Bets, Removing Bad Apples.  Brookings Institution Press, 2006.

Peter H. Schuck, Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law, Yale Law School

Richard J. Zeckhauser, Frank P. Ramsey Professor of Political Economy, Kennedy School of Government


Brookings Institution Web Page

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Selected Citations with Internet Links



"Conservatives will hate this book for assuming that well-designed social programs are an essential part of a humane society. Liberals will hate it for assuming that the needy often bring their troubles on themselves and would behave better if the government stopped subsidizing such behavior. But if, perchance, you want to make the American welfare state either more affordable or more politically palatable to a suspicious public, you should read this book, ponder it, and give it to a friend."
- Christopher Jencks, Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard University

"Targeting in Social Programs is a valuable contribution to the literature on public policy. Schuck and Zeckhauser do not push for any particular policy; instead they present a detailed approach to improving the efficiency of any social program. This hard-hitting, analytically rigorous book should be welcomed by conservatives and liberals alike. It deserves a wide audience among designers, administrators, and students of public programs."
- Victor Fuchs, Henry J. Kaiser Jr. Professor Emeritus, Stanford University

"Schuck and Zeckhauser's Targeting in Social Programs in clear prose makes the case for predictive targeting as a center piece of welfare legislation. Their revolution has already begun. Predictive targeting has radically improved the benefit cost ratio of unemployment training programs. But much work still needs to be done. Targeting in Social Programs shows why failing to attend to bad apples and bad bets is likely to rob many programs of their net utility and political support."                         
- Ian Ayres, William K. Townsend Professor, Yale Law School.  Read the full review here.

"Now Peter Schuck and Richard Zeckhauser have given a solid analytic underpinning to the business of reforming the reforms of earlier eras, in a remarkably clear-headed and good-hearted little book....Together, the pair pretty well exemplify the "militant middle," in the title of one of Schuck's earlier books, except insofar as their ambition to ameliorate social ills through public policy also puts them in the present-day van of the long tradition of American social reform stretching back to Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes."
- David Warsh, Editor of economicprincipals.comRead the full review here.

Recent News:

The Wall Street Journal 06/25/07: (subscription required for full text, sample below)

More bad apples:

"When school started last August, veteran first-grade teacher Patricia McDermott made sure to place one student, 8-year-old Andrea Gavern, in a seat beside her own desk.   Andrea suffers from a rare genetic condition called Williams Syndrome, which causes learning disabilities and medical ailments such as heart problems and difficulty eating. Knowing that Andrea had disrupted her kindergarten classes a year earlier, Ms. McDermott wanted to keep her new pupil under close watch.  The strategy backfired...."

The Wall Street Journal 05/16/07: (subscription required for full text, sample below)

A classic case of bad apples:

"When Eric Hainstock didn't get his way in kindergarten, he told other children his father would kill them. In fifth grade, he tried to spray a homemade concoction he called blood into the mouths of classmates. In sixth grade, he threatened others, fought, and talked 'about killing himself and others.'

Worried about these and other incidents recounted in internal school reports, teachers and a school psychologist recommended that Eric, who was diagnosed in second grade with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, get more one-on-one attention, or be placed in a special private school. Instead, he was one of millions of special-education students mainstreamed in regular classes.

After Eric transferred to Weston Public School here in 2002, his grades plummeted and he was suspended frequently. His only regular help with controlling his outbursts was a weekly, half-hour social-skills class."

03/26/07: Schuck-Zeckhauser Op-Ed published in Boston Globe!

Article is also highlighted by realclearpolitics.com.

The Guardian 12/31/2006: "Britain 'wasting talent of its brightest kids' "

NY Times 12/25/06: "The Man on the Table Devised the Surgery"

Alan Morrison, Founder of the Public Citizen Litigation Group and Senior Lecturer at Stanford Law School, comments on 12/11/06:

"I read your book and liked it very much.  Surely you are right as a matter of principle, just like Stephen  Breyer was right in his book on regulation where he pointed out that the most expensive and least cost-beneficial part of regulation was getting the last 5% (or whatever) out, and it would be much better for the world to spend that last part on getting the other 95%'s fixed instead of going for 100%.  The problems are different, but in both cases the issue is how, in a diffused decision-making society, do we get people to have enough vision to focus on these problems, instead of the politically attractive slogans on the extremes?  Thus, whether I agree with your rather rosy assessment of welfare reform (I see more holes than I think you do), I agree that some kind of effort to deal with bad bets and bad apples (I like your terminology) was necessary.  I also fear that your concerns about assuring that fewer mistakes are made will not be part of any effort to get rid of bad apples (and perhaps bad bets), and the issue then becomes, whether that is better than the current system (and how does one measure or even analyze) that?"

Peter Schuck responds: "Thanks very much for the comments, with which I agree, including your fears -- though I am a bit more optimistic than you are that the politics, not just the merits, of the issue will assure due process for the bad apples."

Frank Pasquale Reviews Targeting in Social Programs 12/01/06

Sample: "Overall I found the book's arguments quite compelling....But if I have one problem with the book, it is probably the moral judgments it implies about bad apples. Yes, people have to take responsibility for their actions. But as the Unequal Childhoods literature is documenting, disparities in everything from language skills to discipline are so great from the "get-go" that it's hard to hold a pauper to the same standards as a prince."

Peter Schuck responds: "I just don't know how bad apples can be removed without inevitably stigmatizing them, try as we should and must to make sure that we are judging them fairly and accurately and rehabilitating them where possible. I don't know what Slobogin's approach is (do you have a cite?), but I doubt that he can square that particular circle. We say very clearly that there are many reasons why people become bad apples and that some no doubt are beyond their control, but we insist that the priority has to be protecting the also-disadvantaged good ones where, as is often the case (and as is built into our definition of bad apples), they are in a tragic, zero-sum game. If you have occasion to discuss the book again, I hope that you will make our position crystal clear rather than inviting the charge, always a conversation-stopper, that we blame the victim."

NY Times 11/15/06: "Judge Says City Must Notify Legal Aid Society Before Evictions From Shelters"

Peter Schuck comments: "This is a court ruling that the city cannot evict a homeless person unless it first notifies lawyers at Legal Aid so that they can intervene to protect the interests of the mentally ill residents. Chalk up one more victory for some very bad apples.  I wish that we could have included this in the book."

NY Times 9/29/06: "Choosing a 'God Squad', When the Mind has Faded"

Peter Schuck comments: "Bad bets!"


Who should be first in line for kidney transplants—the relatively healthy or the severely ill? Should chronic troublemakers be allowed to remain in public housing? Should perpetually disruptive students stay in classes where they can prevent other children from learning? Prominent legal scholar Peter H. Schuck and leading economist Richard J. Zeckhauser take on such vexing policy dilemmas in Targeting in Social Programs: Avoiding Bad Bets, Removing Bad Apples.

Schuck and Zeckhauser present a rigorous framework for analyzing many of the difficult choices facing policymakers. Most social programs seek to help "bad draws"—unfortunate, often low-income individuals. Poor targeting of scarce resources, however, often undermines both the effectiveness of those policies and their political support. Many policy failures occur when officials allocate these scarce resources to two groups of bad draws: "bad bets," who will derive substantially less benefit from the resources than would other bad draws, and "bad apples," whose behavior in the program imposes significant costs on other recipients. The authors show how to identify bad bets and bad apples, and how to treat them in ways that promote the greater public good.

This tough-minded book raises the right questions, those that society ignores at its peril, particularly to its less fortunate members. The answers it provides and reforms it suggests, though rarely easy and sometimes incomplete, will point social policy in the right direction.


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