Spotlight Exclusives

Fighting Poverty Requires Evidence-Based Policymaking

Ron Haskins, Brookings Institution Ron Haskins, Brookings Institution, posted on

In his recent book, Show Me the Evidence, Ron Haskins discusses the Obama administration۪s launch of several evidence-based initiatives that are guided by careful evaluation. Haskins, who serves as co-director of the Center on Children and Families as well as the Budgeting for National Priorities project at the Brookings Institution, recently talked with Spotlight about the Obama administration۪s efforts, the importance of careful evaluation of programs and policies, and the overall implications for fighting poverty and promoting economic opportunity. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Your recent book talks about the Obama administration’s effort to ensure funding goes to social programs that are carefully evaluated and have a clear record of success. Can you talk a little bit about these initiatives?

The Obama administration۪s approach to program funding is straightforward, and we should have been following it all along. The first part involves finding and funding programs with strong evidence of success. Funded programs are then continually monitored through the second part of the Obama initiativesrigorous evaluation.

By the second year of his presidency, the administration had launched six evidence-based initiatives on topics such as funding community colleges to help displaced workers develop marketable skills, reducing teen pregnancy, improving education, and stimulating infant development while reducing maltreatment.

Peter Orszag, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget, has claimed that less than one percent of government spending today is on programs that are known to be effective. Careful evaluation should be a standard practice so the public can know if programs are successful.

President Obama has championed this evidence-based approach during his administration, but it۪s crucial that spending most federal grant dollars on programs with a strong record of success and then subjecting the programs to evaluation survive into the next presidency.

One would think that evaluation would be commonplace in the implementation of federal programs. But you’re saying this hasn’t historically been the case. Why is that?

I’ll start by saying that I do believe there has been an increased use of high-quality program evaluation over the past 10 to 20 years. Much of this progress reflects a larger culture change. It largely involves applying good social science and high-quality testing to assess whether funded programs are in fact producing their intended impacts. This standard should not only be expected at the federal level, but at the state and local leveland to some extent, that has happened as well.

The largest barrier to expanding this culture change is cost. The conventional logic of programs is to allocate funds to implementation, not evaluation, because the hard truth is that stronger evaluations increase the risk that programs will be revealed to have little to no actual impact. Nobody wants that. So as long as you don۪t have the hard evidence, any claim can be made to support a program۪s effectiveness. As rigor and higher standards continue to be introduced, I believe we are going to find that the majority of programs don۪t work the way they۪re intendedand hopefully, this outcome will be a force for promoting the types of funding reforms the Obama administration has developed.

In your view, how much has this lack of rigor in funding hurt our efforts to address poverty specifically?

What is amazing is how many well-regarded programs are not proven to make impacts. I believe a strong movement towards greater evaluative standards will have a profound impact on implementing social programs that are more successful in fighting poverty and its effects.

Today, of the approximately 1,400 programs supported by Obama۪s evidence-based initiatives, the large majority of them focus on addressing poverty. Evidence of success is crucial to knowing that the government is in fact helping those in need and nearly all these new programs are being well evaluated.

When it comes to assisting low-income Americans and promoting economic opportunity, do you have a sense of the kind of programs and policies that are most effective and that we should be investing further in?

I think that education programs have the greatest potential for further impact. Education is inextricably related to earnings, now more than ever, as the economy becomes more technological and we come face-to-face with international competition and outsourcing.

In the education programs that have been subjected to random assignment studies, promise has been shown, but we struggle to scale up the programs we know to have impacts. We have every reason to assume that pre-K programs, like Head Start, can have big impacts. However, they often do not. But I would not favor giving up.

To improve these programs, we have to improve the quality of data that we have to understand whether the program is producing the intended impacts. If it is not, we must develop a tradition of program reform or spending the money on different programs, which would then be subjected to same kind of scrutiny as the program it replaced. Continuous evaluation will provide consistent feedback to allow programs at all levels, from the federal to the state and local level, to be assessed and to adjust their implementation according to evaluation results.

Everybody likes new programs — even Congress, especially if the program is in a representative۪s district. Once a program is enacted, it becomes extremely difficult to terminate as the program creates its own constituency. Even Obama faces this challenge. He has stated his intention to pay for what works and defund what doesn۪t; while he۪s held up his promise on the first part, he has been largely unsuccessful on the secondbut so has every other president. The number of lives a cat has is only slightly fewer than a lousy federal program.

Are you optimistic that the Obama administration efforts can bring about a long-term shift in the way we fund programs? Or do you worry that things will revert to business as usual?

On a scale from one to ten with ten being the most optimistic, I am a five. There are still too many barriers to improvement. Program staff simply don۪t want to face the truth when a program doesn۪t work, and without rigorous evidence of success, it is easy for programs to use methods like testimonials to create the illusion of impact.

This is the case with Head Start. Without random assignment testing, it would be almost impossible to convince people that Head Start doesn۪t work, because the conventional wisdom is to spend more money on programs and not evaluations. But once Head Start was subjected to a rigorous evaluation and was found to produce only modest impacts, views about the program began to take on some doubt. Now we see that a Democratic administration has implemented the most serious reforms in the history of Head Start. If we expect to improve our social programs and have impacts, the Head Start example needs to be repeated a thousand times.

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Ron Haskins is co-director of the Center on Children and Families and the Budgeting for National Priorities project at the Brookings Institution. He previously spent 14 years on the staff of the House Ways and Means Committee’s Human Resources Subcommittee and was an architect of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996.

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