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The Perils of Perfectionism

In The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross says:

Studio heads were confident that Stravinsky’s name would prove a box office draw; Louis B. Mayer reportedly agreed to give the composer a whooping $100,000, which would be well over a million dollars in today’s money. In a review of the composer’s Hollywood activities, Charles Joseph observes that in almost every case Stravinsky demanded too much time to finish the music and too much control over the finished product.

The same is true of journalism, where deadlines rule the day, and the same is true of grant writing, where perfect is the enemy of good—a necessary truism given the deadline-oriented nature of projects. Neither journalism nor grant writing are flawless arts, and as long as deadlines exist that isn’t going to change. Those who, like Stravinsky, want time to work should find another line of business, because additional time just isn’t going to be forthcoming.

We keep analogizing grant writing to movies because there’s a fair amount of similarity between the “get it done” attitude apparently necessary for movies, which are a kind of art, and grant writing, which is also a kind of art. In grant writing, working quickly is a large part of the art. Even if you do have more time than whatever the deadline imposes, the end result might not be any better. I’ll switch metaphors to Go, a board game in which two players take turns placing black and white stones.

The game scales in difficulty almost linearly and takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master—which isn’t where I actually want this metaphor to go, but it’s good to keep in mind nonetheless. The real point: Go is best learned by playing many games quickly, rather than agonizing over particular moves or situations. The game is faster, more fluid, and more fun, and you’ll acquire skill faster than you would otherwise. In the same way, grant writing is best learned by doing: you’re better off writing two proposals of reasonable quality a month rather than one proposal of slightly higher quality. If you continue the two-per month regimen, at the end of twelve months you’ll write two better proposals than the single one you would write if you only wrote one per month.

Later we’ll post more on the subject of how to write proposals under pressure if you’ve never written one before, but in the meantime you should remember that proposals are more like making movies than writing a novel or symphony. Don’t be Stravinsky by implicitly turning down $100,000 because you take too long to prepare: write fast, correct your mistakes, and move on—don’t linger, because you can’t win the race unless you enter. So if you are facing a proposal, the best way to start is with a sentence that attempts to answer whatever first question an RFP asks. Then write another sentence. When you pile enough sentences together, you have a proposal, but if you take too long, it’s not going to matter. Stravinsky was among the Twentieth Century’s most important composers, but he didn’t make much of a difference to Hollywood.

If you’re going to write proposals, you’re going to be in another version Hollywood, and you better meet those deadlines. Keep in mind that any proposal that is turned in late is automatically rejected, no matter how wonderfully crafted.


EDIT: I posted a follow-up article on Perfectionism Revisited.

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Bad Government English

I realize that I could collect examples of bad English from the Federal Register all day long and that doing so is as challenging as picking a fight with six-year-olds, but this sentence from the Department of Education’s Charter School Program stands out:

The purpose of the CSP is to increase national understanding of the charter school model and to expand the number of high-quality charter schools available to students across the Nation by providing financial assistance for the planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools, and to evaluate the effects of charter schools, including their effects on students, student academic achievement, staff, and parents.

Whew! For an extra challenge, diagram the sentence, with all its subordinate and nested clauses. Stanley Fish finds similar problems in an education report and sees bureaucrat speak as the problem:

In this case the bad writing takes two forms. First, there are the sentences made up of empty abstractions linked together in an awkward and strained syntax: “The goal is to magnetize lost talent and ensure that students thrive and progress, in order to create new generations of innovators who will enable New York State to continue as one of the world’s idea capitals.” And there are the sentences that actually say something, but in a prose so clotted and bureaucratic that it takes several readings to figure out what it is […]

A good description of many Requests for Proposals (RFPs)!

Posts such as this might become an occasional series, like the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which is “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” Sample loser/winner: “Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you’ve had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.”

(And yes, the title of this post is intentional.)

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Self-Esteem—What is it good for? Absolutely Nothing

Roberta Stevens commented on “Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make it Seem Like the End of the World” by saying she was “having trouble finding statistics on low self esteem in girls ages 12-19.” This got me thinking about the pointlessness of “self-esteem” as a metric in grant proposals. A simple Google search for ‘“self-esteem” girls studies reports’ yielded a boatload of studies, but if you look closely at them, it is apparent that most are based on “self-reports,” which is another way of saying that researchers asked the little darlings how they feel.

When my youngest son was in middle school, he was subjected to endless navel gazing surveys and routinely reported confidentially that he had carried machine guns to school, smoked crack regularly and started having sex at age seven. In short, he thought it was fun to tweak the authority figures and my guess is that many other young people do too when confronted by earnest researchers asking probing questions.

Although such studies often reveal somewhat dubious alleged gender differences based on self-esteem, I have yet to see any self-esteem data that correlated with meaningful outcomes for young people. Perhaps this is obvious, since self-esteem is such a poor indicator of anything in the real world, given that Stalin appears to have had plenty of self-esteem, even if his moral compass was off target. Arguably our best President, Abraham Lincoln, was by most accounts wracked with self-doubt and low self-esteem, while more recent Presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, both with questionable presidencies, did not seem short in the self-esteem department.

If I use self-esteem in a needs assessment for a supportive service program for teenage girls, I would find appropriately disturbing statistics (e.g., the pregnancy rate is two times the state rate, the drop out rate among teenage girls has increased by 20%, etc.) and “expert” quotes (“we’ve seen a rise in suicide ideation among our young women clients,” says Carmella, Kumquat, MSW, Mental Health Services Director) to paint a suitably depressing picture and then top it off with the ever popular statement such as, “Given these disappointing indicators, the organization knows anecdotally from its 200 years of experience in delivering youth services, that targeted young women exhibit extremely low self-esteem, which contributes to their challenges in achieving long-term self-sufficiency.” I know this is a nauseating sentence, but it is fairly typical of most grant proposals and is why proposals should never be read just after eating lunch.

So, to paraphrase Edwin Star, “Self-esteem, what is it good for? / Absolutely nothing.”

(In the context of gangs, Jake has also commented on suspect or twisted needs indicators .)


EDIT: A more recent post, Self-Efficacy—Oops, There Goes Another Rubber Tree Plant, takes up the issue of finding a metric more valuable than self-esteem for both grant writers and program participants.

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More on Charities

A previous post linked to a Wall Street Journal post on charities; now the paper released a full article (may not be accessible to non-subscribers) on the subject of how donors evaluate the usefulness of a program, arguing that donors are becoming more engaged in measurement. One thing missing: statistics showing this is actually part of a trend, rather than just a collection of anecdotes. The article is more descriptive of the practices around how to evaluate effectiveness and uses hedge words:

Wealthy people and foundations sometimes hire philanthropy consultants to help them gauge a charity’s effectiveness. But other donors who seek that kind of analysis usually have had to rely on guesswork or do it themselves, which makes it tough to figure out whether one approach to solving a problem is better than another.

“Sometimes” they hire consultants, other times they essentially use the hope and pray method. That’s not terribly different from how things have always been done. Most interesting, however, is a topic relevant to evaluations that we’ll comment on more later:

The problem is, it can be difficult — and expensive — to measure whether charitable programs are actually working, and most nonprofits aren’t willing to devote scarce resources to collecting such information.

Most federal programs have in effect chosen a tradeoff: they provide more money and almost no real auditing. This is because real auditing is expensive and generally not worthwhile unless a blogger or journalist takes a picture of an organization’s Executive Director in a shiny new Ferrari. To really figure out what an organization is doing with $500,000 or $1,000,000 would cost so much in compliance that it would come to represent an appreciable portion of the grant: thus, the hope and pray method becomes the de facto standard (more on that below).

The writers also are pressed for space or don’t fully grok nonprofit evaluations, because they write:

Philanthropy advisers suggest first asking nonprofits about their goals and strategies, and which indicators they use to monitor their own impact. Givers should see how the charity measures its results both in the short term — monthly or quarterly — and over a period of years.

Measuring results isn’t a bad idea if it can be done, but the reason such measurements often don’t occur is precisely because they’re hard. Even if they do occur, you’re asking the organization to set its own goal marker—which makes them easy to set at very, ahem, modest, levels. If you set them at higher levels, the measurement problems kick in.

If you’re going to decide whether an after school program for middle-schoolers is effective, you’ll have to get a cohort together, randomly divide them into those who receive services and those who don’t, and then follow them through much of their lives—in other words, you have to direct a longitudinal study, which is expensive and difficult. That way, you’ll know if the group who received services were more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, get jobs, and the like. But even if you divide the group in two, you can still have poisoned data because if you rely on those who present for services, you’re often getting the cream of the high-risk/low-resource crop. You have numerous other confounding factors like geography and culture and the like.

The research can be far more costly than the project, and as little as donors like not knowing whether their money is effective, they’re going to like it even less if you spend 50 — 80% of the project on evaluating it. This is why the situation donors say they want to change is likely to persist regardless of what is reported.


EDIT: We wrote another, longer post on evaluations here.

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More on Drugs

Drug use, like healthcare and a number of other modern political background noises, offer endless fodder for debate and study, especially when mixed with teenagers. Now the New York Times has an article about teenagers, risky behaviors, and why some programs aimed at teens are likely to fail:

For example, a study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that teenagers were more likely than adults to overestimate risks for every outcome studied, from low-probability events like contracting H.I.V. to higher-probability ones like acquiring more common sexually transmitted diseases or becoming pregnant from a single act of unprotected sex.

“We found that teenagers quite rationally weigh benefits and risks,” Dr. Reyna said in a recent interview. “But when they do that, the equation delivers the message to go ahead and do that, because to the teen the benefits outweigh the risks.”

For example, she said: “The risk of pregnancy from a single act of unprotected sex is quite small, perhaps one chance in 12, and the risk of contracting H.I.V., about one in 500, is very much smaller than that. We’re not thinking logically; they are.”

For that reason, [two professors wrote in an article that] traditional programs […] appeal[ling] to teenagers’ rationality “are inherently flawed, not because teens fail to weigh risks against benefits,” but because “teens tend to weight benefits more heavily than risks when making decisions.”

In light of research like this, programs designed to prevent teens behaving badly are unlikely to be cut or shrunk any time soon because teenage risk-taking is a perennial and perhaps biological imperative. This is great news for nonprofits that seek grants in the apparently endless “War on Drugs” to save teens from themselves.

(Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.)

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Gangs, Again

Hot on the trail of yesterday’s post about L.A. gangs and statistics, the New York Times published “Los Angeles Combating Gangs Gone International.” It begins:

Two gangs that originated on the streets here have grown so large in El Salvador that there are two prisons in that country devoted exclusively to their members, one for each gang, according to officials who traveled there recently to meet with the local authorities.

That is just one measure of the way gangs in this city with the worst gang problem in the United States have bolstered their presence in Mexico and Central America, where they attract new members eager to come here.

Over the course of the article, you won’t notice any numbers regarding how many active gang members operate in L.A., and not until the fourth paragraph do you actually learn that its premise rests on 23 people being convicted of extra immigration crimes. In addition, the only two people quoted are, for lack of a better term, anti-gang professionals; evidently the reporter knows what Isaac said about narratives:

If you’re having difficulty building your argument with data, a good technique is to call local “experts” for quotes. For example, find and call the police unit responsible for gang suppression in your target area, then ask leading questions. Invariably, the officer will tell horror stories about rampant gang activity. Just ask if you can quote her and she will almost always agree. It’s always fun to include the names of some local gangs in your proposal for a dash of reader titillation.

I’ve written about questionable New York Times articles on my personal blog, and there is something vaguely rotten about “Los Angeles Combating Gangs Gone International.”

You also don’t get the names of the gangs, but one is almost certainly “Mara Salva Trucha” or MS-13 (sometimes spell “Salvatrucha”), which is famous enough or has good enough PR to merit a Wikipedia page, although you shouldn’t necessarily trust what you read there. Still, given all the publicity MS-13 has received, you can always cite Bloods, Crips, and MS-13 affiliates as making up your local gang problem.

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On Gangs and Proposals

As Isaac wrote, it almost never hurts to claim gang activity in a proposed service area (“[. . . f]ind and call the police unit responsible for gang suppression in your target area, then ask leading questions. Invariably, the officer will tell horror stories about rampant gang activity.”). Now, by way of Freakonomics, I found an L.A. Weekly article on the subject:

Eventually, James started talking. He told me he’d started gangbanging when he was 12. “I got shot when I was 15, and that’s when it got bad,” he said softly. “I got extreme after I got shot.” James started teaching youngsters from Nickerson how to gangbang. Using rival gangbangers for practice, he taught his students how to hunt and kill. “You teach a person how not to take losses, how to be gladiators, run them down, gun them down,” he explained.

James wasn’t remorseful, but he was far from proud. In truth, he seemed numb; his life of crime and death hung about him in a static haze. There is a personal demilitarized zone in the advanced lives of former hardcore gang members, should they survive their 20s, where they live as neither soldier nor citizen. James said he struggles to keep a gun out of his own hands every day, but that in January he was tempted to join the battle with the Grape Street Crips after a young Bounty Hunter he knew was killed.

Steven Levitt of the Freakonomics Blog says he can’t agree with the article’s conclusion about increasing violence:

Landesman argues that the gang problem is worse than it has ever been, and that gang violence hasn’t dropped the way other crimes have. A quick glance at the homicide rates among young black males over the last 15 years shows that this statement just can’t be accurate. The biggest declines in homicide have been among young black males, both in absolute and percentage terms.

What Levitt doesn’t address is the possibility that gangs are getting worse in Los Angeles, which is the area covered by the article, even if the situation is improving nationwide. Judging from articles like “The Story of a Snitch” in The Atlantic, which covers Baltimore, I wouldn’t be surprised if gang problems are changing rather than abating. Or maybe programs like G.R.E.A.T. are having some effect, as The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) argues. This seems improbable but possible, and I don’t know of anyone who has examined the methodology of the NIJ’s study.

The preceding paragraph again goes back to Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World by demonstrating how statistics can be attacked and why you shouldn’t necessarily trust conclusions found in the popular press or elsewhere. They can be changed and challenged in an actual proposal. If you’re writing one, you usually have an incentive to make the area or situation appear as bad as possible so you can remedy problems through your project.

Consequently, when writing about a target area, you’re better off claiming gang activity, since most reviewers aren’t going to be aware of gang trends nationwide, and even if they are, you can announce that gang activity in your area is rising, as the L.A. Weekly reviewer did. You could also cite Levitt, as I do, and then attack his reasoning.

As with most things about grant writing, there are some local aspects Levitt doesn’t know about, and in this case it’s something everyone in South Central does: Nickerson Gardens, a public housing development, is among the worst areas around. Here’s one example of its history: “The Nickerson Gardens is considered by many as the most violent, drug infested, crime riddled neighborhood in the country.” It’s a very scary place and, ironically, there’s a street running through called “Success,” which reminds me of Soviet propaganda about worker achievement and happiness.

Success Ave

(Click to here to see the full image.)

When I talked to Isaac about this article, he immediately said that he bet that the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), which owns Nickerson, hasn’t tried to use the HUD HOPE VI program to revitalize Nickerson. He was right, and HOPE VI also hasn’t been attempted at the other three public housing projects in Watts: Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts, and Avalon Gardens. Nickerson was also right in the middle of the civil disturbances in Watts in 1965 and the Rodney King incident in 1992, and 15 years later it remains a place of hopelessness and gang activity. Despite the street name, there is little success in Nickerson.

This is the kind of revisionist information you could include in a needs assessment about the area. The stories embedded would add flavor and help counteract what Levitt writes, so even if the reviewer happens to know a lot about gang activity, which is improbable, he or she would still award you points for need.


EDIT: This post covers similar territory.

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Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World

Almost every grant proposal requires some form of needs assessment. More or less, the sentiment one must get across it that “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine,” as REM says. Essentially, the object is to make problems look overwhelming, but solvable with just a dollop of grant funds. So, how does a grant writer do this?

Start by making the end appear nigh, which requires a needs assessment. Look at the Census data available at American Fact Finder, which has a variety of geographic choices (e.g. county, city, zip code, census tract, etc.). It is almost always best to match the project target area with a census data geographic area to make assembling data easier, regardless of whether the census area perfectly matches the area you want to serve. Try not to make the target area, “the Westside of Dubuque,” unless that happens to conform with four census tracts. Most geographic areas have 2000 Census data, as well as estimates for 2005. Pick the date that is to your advantage, and being to your advantage means making the situation look worse. For example, if incomes have been trending downward and unemployment upward due to plant closings, the 2005 data may be better. Announce that, if current trends continue, Dubuque may be abandoned completely in 2010 because there are too few jobs, but the situation can be improved with the requested grant.

Once you have your target area, find useful socioeconomic indicators like ethnic breakdown, median family income, age cohort percentages, percent of people living below poverty, percent with disabilities, etc. Only include data that supports your case. A winning grant proposal is not like a thesis, so you are under no obligation to use all available data. Also, it is critical that you provide some data on a larger area for comparison purposes, so your readers understand the relative problems. This can be the city, the county, state or even national data—pick whichever makes your situation look worst, meaning with the greatest discrepancy between the target area and the larger sample. It doesn’t really matter which geographic level you compare to, as long as you can say something to effect of, “The target area median family income is just 2/3 that of Los Angeles County.” Depending on the target population, it may be advantageous to compare data for a particular ethnic group to all residents. For example, if the target area includes a significant African American population with lower incomes, you can set up tables showing African American indicators versus white indicators for the same geographic area, in essence comparing the target area to itself. American Fact Finder has a handy tool on the left button bar for “Fact Sheet for a Race, Ethnic or Ancestry Group” that makes this easy to do.

FactFinder

(Click here to see the full image.)

You can also use census data to obfuscate the actual reality in the target area. For example, in many Southern California cities there are high percentages of Asian Americans, who in some communities have higher-than-average incomes. This can be used for statements such as, “over two in five residents is a person of color.” For better or worse, most grant reviewers will usually associate persons of color with lower incomes and higher risk factors whether this is true or not. Grant reviewers seldom have a deep background in statistics and they probably don’t even know statistics for journalists let alone real statistics. Even if they do, everything starts to become a haze after reading a dozen federal proposals that can be onerously long, so most reviewers are apt to begin looking more for conclusions than data not long into the process. Do you somehow fulfill the checkbox that asks whether educational attainment is lower in the target area than the nation? If so, give ’em five points and move on.

Other good sources of data include state and local departments of education. Some states and school districts have better data engines than others. For example, the California Department of Education has a great site, DataQuest, but other states’s data system are, as Borat would say, “not so much”. If a good data engine/warehouse is not available, find the school/district reports cards mandated by the federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation. Many districts try to hide these reports, as they are often unflattering after you get past the mission/vision statement platitudes, but if you dig hard enough you will find them. If necessary, call the statistics unit at the district or state and force the reports out of them.

Once you have data, only use what helps the argument. So, if test scores for certain grades are low relative to the county or state, use those, not all test scores. If you want to use dropout data, use the four-year derived rate, not the single year, which will be much lower. In some states, such as Illinois, drop out data is wildly understated, due to the way the state treats students who are no longer in school, so if you have to use it, underscore this fact. Health data, including disease incidence, mortality, etc., can usually be found at state and local health department web sites, while crime and gang data are typically found at police department web sites.

If you’re having difficulty building your argument with data, a good technique is to call local “experts” for quotes. For example, find and call the police unit responsible for gang suppression in your target area, then ask leading questions. Invariably, the officer will tell horror stories about rampant gang activity. Just ask if you can quote her and she will almost always agree. It’s always fun to include the names of some local gangs in your proposal for a dash of reader titillation. This is particularly important if the reader is on proposal 35 out of 40 and just wants to go find the hotel bar. You can also find the name of any large social service provider or city official in the target area (other than the one for whom you are working) and ask them about local problems with the target population. For example, if you seek information about at-risk youth services and you talk to the local Boys and Girls Club executive director or city parks director, this person will almost always say that new problems are erupting every minute while their funding is declining.

This gives you the opportunity to write something like, according to Conrad Cuttlebone, YMCA Director, “there are many more latch-key kids in the community since the Hindenburg Dirigible Factory closed, and we’re seeing many more cases of domestic violence, while at the same time the county cut our funding by 50%.” When all else fails, you can simply write, “although specific target area level data is not available, the agency knows anecdotally that teen pregnancy is on the rise, mirroring national trends.” Of course, you can do this even if the local area doesn’t match national trends, as most reviewers don’t have the vaguest idea about national trends for anything.

In other words, while it is not a good idea to make up data, it’s perfectly fair to exaggerate problems through obfuscation and specious analysis. You’re generally rewarded for such effects: the worse the target area, the more likely you are to get points, and the more likely you are to be funded.

The gentle art of writing needs assessments really comes down to painting word pictures that combine cherry-picked data with opinions and anecdotes strung together to meet the expectations of reviewers, who assume something terrible must be going on in your community, or you would be doing almost anything other than writing a grant proposal, such as watching my favorite college football team, the KU Jayhawks, trounce Virginia Tech in the upcoming Orange Bowl. Rock! Chalk! Jayhawk! KU!

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Zombie Funding – Six Tana Leaves for Life, Nine for Motion

Jake’s post on Zombie Funding got me thinking about my favorite Zombie program, the Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery (UPARR) program. This oddball program emerged in 1978 during the Carter administration and was supposed to link economic development with park development, a curious combination even by federal standards. In 1979, I wrote the first two UPARR grants, one for planning and one for implementation, while working as a full-time grant writer for the City of Lynwood. The planning grant was particularly fun to write, as the City only had two parks and it was quite a stretch to dream up complex planning tasks. But such is the joy of grant writing. The Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (BOR) Program Officers, a group that really knew how to party, was so impressed that they invited me to the first, and probably only, annual UPARR conference in San Antonio. Not much of a conference, but I did get to shake hands with Henry Cisneros, a rising political star who might have been President, except for a minor personal peccadillo.

Time passed, and when Reagan rode into D.C., UPARR was one of the first casualties. I assumed it was gone forever, but I failed to take the Zombie factor into account. It was never actually killed. Instead, it was kept out of appropriation bills, which brings me to the Tana leaf effect. Those of you old enough to remember the seemingly endless Mummy movies (see the link for a nice discussion of these films, which were a childhood staple of mine) will recall that it takes the juice of six Tana leaves to keep the old boy in bandages alive and the juice of nine Tana leaves for motion! At nine Tana leaves, the mummy threatens the leading actress, but that part of the analogy doesn’t stretch into the proposal world.

Now, flash forward to 1994, shortly after we started Seliger + Associates. We got a call from a city interested in applying for UPARR. I checked and to my amazement found that the BOR had been giving six Tana leaves to UPARR for 13 years. When Clinton got elected, they went to nine Tana leaves and UPARR stalked the land once more. Even more fun was that BOR had done such a good job of hiding the program that the eligibility rules had never been updated—to apply, the city had to be on the original eligibility list from 1978, which was based on the 1970 census. Along comes G.W. Bush and BOR goes back to six Tana leaves, so UPARR is once again slumbering.

Depending the vagaries of the ’08 election, the scraping noise you hear behind you might be the UPARR Mummy creeping again, after having gotten its nine Tana leaves. Let’s hope they keep the old eligibility list, so I get to work with almost 40-year old census data again. For a real blast from the past, check out the table names for the 1970 census. Political correctness had not quite arrived.

The moral of this story is that the feds almost never completely eliminate funding programs; they just go into suspended hibernation like The Thing from Another World, yet another of my favorite childhood movies.