As a national expert on child welfare, Spears-Turner Distinguished Professor Mark Testa is familiar with political arguments from the left and right on what’s needed to tackle the country’s most pressing social challenges. One side argues for more government investment to improve the lives of struggling families. The opposite contends that millions of dollars spent on programs with good intentions have done little to move these same families forward. With both sides unwilling to bend—as often seems the case—policy stagnates and problems, such as poverty, domestic violence and inadequate mental health care, don’t get solved.
But what if, Testa often likes to challenge, there was a third solution? What if state and federal lawmakers agreed to invest taxpayer dollars in innovative programs and ideas that produce solid results and more importantly, have the rigorous evaluation and evidence to show for it?
“Instead of saying, we only have two choices—we either have cuts in government spending or we have to grow the welfare state —let’s get somewhere in the middle and ask, ‘What should we be spending our money on?’” Testa said. “And then let’s invest in what’s actually working.”
That idea has been gaining traction in recent years, including among elected officials on Capitol Hill. Moreover, scholars, economists, philanthropists and others are helping to lead the charge for change.
On the academic side, Testa is among a growing group of researchers, including other social work faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill, who are successfully contributing to evidence-based policy and practice to inform and influence social programs that improve the lives of children, families and communities at-large (See “UNC program to help people with mental illness expands across the state”). Their work has become part of a much larger national movement that has been dubbed the “age of evidence-based policymaking.”
For years, social and behavioral science researchers have helped expand knowledge and potential solutions to systemic social problems that challenge government and NGO agencies nationally and internationally. Yet, governments generally have not used researchers’ findings in the decision-making process, explained School Professor Michael Lambert.
“Typically, researchers, practitioners, and policymakers rarely talk to one another,” said Lambert, who is currently advising an international initiative examining violence in childhood to help policymakers identify effective preventative solutions. “As a result, a lot is lost in the translation between research and informing policy as well as informing practice decisions. So, it’s only been recent that people’s feet have been held to the fire in terms of providing services as well as creating policies that really might be rooted in evidence.”
Efforts to direct government spending toward social initiatives that work emerged with the Clinton and Bush administrations and have grown under President Obama, who has focused on innovative ideas targeting job training, career education, K-12 education, teen pregnancy, and maternal and infant well-being. The goal: Reduce wasteful spending; expand innovative programs that have shown promise and eliminate those that have had minimal, if any, impact; and strengthen program accountability.
In the nation’s capital where powerful constituencies often direct much of the political agenda, such an approach seems almost radical, especially given Washington’s history of funding programs that have delivered few results. For example, according to research cited by the nonpartisan Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, federal and state agencies have supported youth programs such as Job Corps and Upward Bound for years despite evidence that they are doing little to help. Moreover, according to “rough calculations” from two former U.S. policy and budget officials under Republican and Democratic presidents, “less than $1 out of every $100 of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely.”