The Snake Oil Salesman: Author of Heritage Foundation Immigration Report Touted Failed Ab-Only Policies


You know something’s rotten in Denmark, or, well, far closer to home at the Heritage Foundation, when one of the leading contenders for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination calls a study by the think tank “deeply flawed.” That was the opinion expressed by Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio when asked about a new Heritage Foundation report asserting, among other things, that immigration reform would cost taxpayers $6.3 trillion, a finding contrary to virtually every other study on immigration showing net economic gains.

Rubio was joined in his criticism of the Heritage report by former Mississippi Gov. Hayley Barbour as well as former GOP vice presidential candidate and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), who stated, “The Congressional Budget Office has found that fixing our broken immigration system could help our economy grow. A proper accounting of immigration reform should take into account these dynamic effects.”

It is highly unusual for GOP leading lights to so loudly and forcefully criticize not only the Heritage Foundation but by extension its new president, former GOP Sen. Jim Demint, who is credited at least in part with helping Rubio rise to national prominence. And it certainly doesn’t help recent GOP re-branding efforts that Jason Richwine, one of the report’s authors, espouses what can only be called racist views, claiming at one point that immigrants to the United States have lower IQs than the “white native population.”

But the GOP is in a panic of its own making. Concerted efforts across the country to disenfranchise voters in the 2012 election combined with the open animosity shown by many GOP and Tea Party politicians toward new and aspiring Americans have dimmed the GOP’s long-term electoral prospects. So now, the party that has relied on cooking data to bolster false arguments on everything from climate change to women’s health is having a fit about the most recent product coming out of the Heritage Foundation kitchen. So upset are aspiring presidential candidates such as Rubio that he asserted Heritage’s work on immigration is “not a legitimate study.” It’s an interesting use of language because Robert Rector, the study’s lead author, has a long history of producing studies of questionable legitimacy.

Rector is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and has long been known for his advocacy of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Over the years, Rector conducted “analyses” of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs used by the GOP to push for federal funding of those programs, which well exceeded $1.5 billion over the course of the last ten years. He claimed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs reduce sexual activity, “out-of-wedlock” childbearing, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and that they promote personal responsibility and marital commitment. In one paper he wrote, “There are 10 scientific evaluations showing that real abstinence programs can be highly effective in reducing early sexual activity.”

Rector’s analyses, however, were severely criticized by numerous experts in the field. For example, in a 2002 paper by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy examining Rector’s claims, Douglas Kirby, a highly-regarded researcher in the field of adolescent health and behavior, wrote:

In sum, of the ten studies identified by the Heritage Foundation paper as providing proof that their respective programs reduced early sexual activity, nine of them failed to provide credible evidence … that they delayed the initiation of sex or reduced the frequency of sex.

One of the studies suggests that the program, Not Me, Not Now, may have delayed the initiation of sex among youth 15 and younger, but not among those 17 and younger.

Kirby noted that Rector’s evaluation relied on studies that did not meet the established criteria for evidence or peer review, so it was impossible to know whether one or another program could claim efficacy.

Likewise, in a 2006 review article in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Columbia University professor Dr. John Santelli (M.D., MPH) and his colleagues specifically critiqued evaluations of data performed by Rector on both abstinence-only curricula and virginity pledges. Regarding the ten “scientific evaluations” Rector cited supporting ab-only, Santelli and his colleagues wrote:

A review by Robert Rector identified 10 evaluations of AOE [abstinence-only education] programs that appeared to demonstrate behavior change as a result of program participation. However, few of these evaluations met the minimum scientific criteria listed above [in the article], and all contained flaws in methodology or interpretation of the data that could lead to significantly biased results. A review of 10 state program evaluations by Advocates for Youth found no evidence of an impact on adolescent sexual behavior.

Rector also tried to claim that those who took virginity pledges were less likely to contract sexually transmitted infections. But as Santelli et al., wrote:

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has reanalyzed the Add Health data and severely criticized the Bruckner study in a recent presentation. However, the Rector study has not undergone peer review and it, in turn, has been severely criticized for manipulating statistical norms for significance. A serious flaw in this analysis was the use of self-reported STIs, instead of laboratory-reported infections as used in the Bruckner study. This is problematic given that many STIs are asymptomatic and pledgers were less likely to be tested for STIs.

A federally supported evaluation of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs funded under the 1996 federal welfare reform law provided further evidence that Rector’s and the Heritage Foundation’s claims about abstinence-only programs were highly over-blown. A press release from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) stated that the report, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “found no evidence that abstinence-only programs increased rates of sexual abstinence. Also, students in the abstinence-only programs had a similar number of sexual partners as their peers not in the programs, as well as a similar age of first sex.”

William Smith, then the vice president for public policy at SIECUS, stated:

In 1996, the federal government attached a provision to the welfare reform law establishing a federal program for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. This program, Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act, dedicated $50 million per year to be distributed among states that choose to participate. States accepting the funds are required to match every four federal dollars with three state-raised dollars (for a total of $87.5 million annually, and $787.5 million for the eight years from fiscal year 1998 through 2006). Programs that receive the Title V funding are prohibited from discussing methods of contraception, including condoms, except in the context of failure rates.

Advocates for Youth, a leader in advocating for medically accurate sexual health education, also detailed numerous problems with ab-only programs and with Rector’s analyses of these programs.

So Rector’s work at the Heritage Foundation was used to support throwing taxpayer money at programs with no proven efficacy, programs which denied (and in many states continue to deny) teens access to medically accurate information on sex, sexual health, and prevention. Ironic then that one of Rector’s greatest concerns about immigration is his claim regarding how much taxpayer money will be needed to provide benefits to individuals entering the country.

Robert Rector clearly does not have a stellar record on research and analysis. But his work on immigration is being widely criticized by the GOP now simply because of the political costs to the party of appearing to be anti-immigrant. With ab-only, it well-suited the far right to dump millions of dollars into disproven programs because those funds were going to religious groups that used the money to proselytize, and to political allies in the anti-choice movement only too happy to run programs that promoted “traditional values,” such as telling rape victims they were “asking for it.”

According to SIECUS, when the Mathematica study came out disproving Rector’s work, the response by both Heritage and Rector was to “spin, spin, spin.” SIECUS noted that on a call organized by the Abstinence Clearinghouse, “abstinence-only proponents were clearly rocked by the potentially ruinous news in the report.”

High profile abstinence-only advocate, Robert Rector, led the preemptive damage-control planning. He outlined several strategies the abstinence-only movement could use to rationalize the findings in the report saying, “The other spin I think is very important is not [program] effectiveness, but rather the values that are being taught,” Rector said.

Heritage is now undertaking the same strategy of damage control on the immigration report. In what Politico called a “significant move,” the think tank is considering hiring an outside communications firm to handle the blow back.

But no amount of spin can change the fact that the Heritage Foundation and Robert Rector were selling snake oil then, and are selling snake oil now.

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