When the State of the Union speech warns us about war, families across the country pay attention. President Bush tried to balance those warnings with a wish list of goodies for families – everything from tax cuts to drug abuse programs to mentoring programs – but if our country’s preparation for war is as haphazard as the domestic agenda, we could be in trouble.

The president’s proposal to fund mentoring programs did not get much media attention, but is a perfect example of an idea that sounds compassionate and reasonble, but is not really well-thought out. Did anyone do their homework on this one? Mentoring programs are trendy, and it’s impossible to be against them, but the research is clear: their effectiveness is very limited, and they can do more harm than good.

Mentoring programs are a lot like policy proposals – folks start with the best of intentions, but they don’t always follow through. Studies show that mentoring relationships that only last a few months (or less) leave kids feeling rejected. It is only when mentoring relationships last a year or more that they can truly make a difference.

If Congress agrees to spend $450 million for mentoring programs, research tells us that it may help kids to do better in school and may help reduce drug abuse. Unfortunately, the devil is in the details because studies show the improvements are quite small. For example, in one of the most successful programs, ethnic minority girls who had mentors had a grade-point average of B minus compared to C plus for girls who did not. In another program, 53 percent of students with mentors went on to college compared to 49 percent in the control group – not an enormous difference. There were no changes in stealing or damaging property in the last year, getting in a fight, smoking, cheating, or getting sent to the principal’s office to be disciplined.

If these improvements don’t sound impressive, I’m sorry to say there is more bad news. The mentoring programs that are most effective often include scholarships and other important extras.

And, although mentoring is a volunteer activity, the most effective mentoring programs are not free. Research shows that the best mentoring programs cost approximately $1,000 per youth per year, not counting the donations of the mentor in time and money. Another potential problem is that it is difficult to find mentors who can make a long-term commitment and have money to take a child to the movies, museums or other places.

OK, so maybe the mentoring proposal wasn’t well thought-out. What about more important proposals, such as tax cuts? I strongly support the president’s proposal to get rid of the “marriage penalty,” which taxes married couples at a higher rate than two adults living together who are not married. But let’s be clear – this tax cut will primarily benefit families where both the husband and wife have good salaries.

President Bush described the decrease in taxes on stock dividends as helping the many seniors with investments. But very few seniors invest enough to noticeably benefit from that kind of tax cut.

Meanwhile, as President Bush noted, more and more Americans are jeopardized by their lack of health insurance. I agree. But why did he neglect to mention the greatest health crisis currently facing us: the cuts that cash-strapped state governments are making in Medicaid?

Medicaid provides health care to our poorest families, including those on or leaving welfare and frail elderly in nursing homes. This year, 49 states have started cutting Medicaid benefits, by throwing people off the program or reducing the reimbursements.

These are just a few examples of the holes in the domestic policy agenda sketched out in the State of the Union. Families feeling worried about war are also worried about what’s happening at home. Even if these proposals become law, it won’t make our worries go away.

Diana Zuckerman is president of the National Center for Policy Research for Women & Families.

Readers may write to her at: National Center for Policy Research for Women & Families, 1901 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Suite 901, Washington, D.C. 20006, or via e-mail at dzcenter4policy.org; Web site: www.center4policy.org.

This essay is available to Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service subscribers. Knight Ridder/Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of Knight Ridder/Tribune or its editors.

(c) 2003, National Center for Policy Research for Women & Families

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services

AP-NY-01-31-03 0605EST

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