Before he put his foot in his mouth by asserting that "the private sector is doing fine," President Obama was trying to make the case for a larger federal government role in the hiring of teachers, cops and firefighters.
"One of the biggest weaknesses has been state and local governments," Obama said. "These are teachers and cops and firefighters. Congress should pass a bill putting them back to work right now," he said.
Mitt Romney disagreed. He told Fox News on Monday, "Of course, teachers and firemen and policemen are hired at the local level, and also by states. The federal government doesn't pay for teachers, firefighters or policemen. So, obviously, that's completely absurd."
If only that were true.
The authors of our Constitution may have envisioned a federal government of limited powers that would leave education, police and fire protection to local governments, but since the 1970s, the federal government has been steadily increasing its involvement in each of these areas. And hard data show these federal programs have completely failed to improve outcomes.
Take federal education spending. Since 1970, federal spending on K-12 education has increased 375 percent. And over that same time, public school employment has almost doubled while enrollment has stayed the same. So what have federal taxpayers got in exchange for this investment? Nothing. Math and reading scores at the end of high school are unchanged over the past 40 years, while science scores have declined slightly.
The federal government got a later start in funding local law enforcement jobs, but the results are just as dismal. Since President Clinton first passed his crime bill in 1994, the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, program has passed out billions in grants to localities.
But a 2006 study found that these grants failed to have a statistically measurable impact on murder, rape, assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft rates. In 2007, professors John Worrall of the University of Texas at Dallas and Tomislav Kovandzic of the University of Alabama at Birmingham wrote, "[A] strategy of throwing money at the crime problem, of simply hiring more police officers, does not seem to help reduce crime to a significant extent."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grants have been equally worthless. A 2009 study comparing fire grant award data with the National Fire Incident Reporting System, an incident-based database of fire-related emergencies reported by fire departments, found that SAFER grants failed to reduce firefighter deaths, firefighter injuries, civilian deaths and civilian injuries.
None of this data in any way takes away from the fantastic jobs that most teachers, cops and firefighters do every day. What it does suggest is that local governments have the best track record at evaluating and funding their local educational, fire and public safety needs, not the federal government.
The question American voters should ask themselves this November is: Who do you best trust to understand your community's educational and safety needs, your state, local and city governments, or Congress?
For the first 200 years of our republic, local governments made these decisions on their own just fine. Obama needs to explain why expanding the federal government's failed intervention is suddenly necessary.