Why is the political support for evidence-based policies so weak and inconsistent?

A recent New York Times article by Annie Lowery pointed out that several important programs with strong research support for effectiveness are being threatened in the federal appropriations process.

In particular, a House appropriations subcommittee recommended cutting all fiscal year 2012 funding ($350 million) for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. This program, included in one small portion of the federal health care reform bill, funds home visitation programs with strong research evidence of success.

Among these programs is the Nurse Family Partnership. NFP provides disadvantaged first-time mothers with nurse home visitation services from the pre-natal period until the child is age 2. These services focus on better pre-natal care and better parenting practices, as well as on helping the mother improve her life course. Several random assignment experiments have shown strong evidence that NFP has significant benefits in improving mothers’ employment and education, and reducing the child’s involvement in crime during adolescence.  In my book, Investing in Kids, I estimate that for each dollar invested in NFP, the nationwide increase in per capita earnings is $2.47, and the increase within the state in which NFP is delivered will be $1.85.

Among those protesting this cut in funding, which would decrease the scale of a program with demonstrated effectiveness, is Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution and Jon Baron, President of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy.  Ron Haskins was one of the key Republican congressional staff members involved in the 1996 welfare reform bill.

At current writing, it is unclear whether the Nurse Family Partnership program, and other social programs with a strong evidence base for success, will survive the appropriations process. Press reports suggest that negotiations among the White House, Senate Democrats, and House Republicans are getting close to a deal on fiscal year 2012 appropriations.

What I find disturbing is that NFP and other programs with strong research support are even threatened in these appropriations debates. What politicians should be advocating for is not “more government” or “less government”, but rather “more effective government”. This means expanding government programs that work, and either reforming or cutting government programs that don’t work.

We need to change our political culture. Our current political culture relies too much on ideology, gut instinct, anecdote, and political clout to identify favored and disfavored programs. But if we want a better economy and a better society, we need to do more to reallocate resources towards programs that have at least some reasonable research evidence for economic and social benefits that exceed costs.

We need more support at the federal level for groups such as the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy. We also need support at the state level for groups such as the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.   This organization, created by the Washington state legislature in 1983, provides non-partisan research evidence on the benefits and costs of alternative state public policies. We need to modify the political cultures of states – which includes not only legislators, but the news media, the business community, and other influential groups – so that there is more credence given to whether programs actually work instead of to ideologies that decide such questions without any empirical data.

A well-known quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from a speech given in May of 1932, goes as follows:

“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.”

Given the magnitude of the many economic and social challenges facing the U.S., we need to figure out how to recover that spirit of openness to experimentation, combined with the discipline to be willing to act on the basis of the results of that experimentation.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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