The same can be said in public government, including in North Carolina, where lawmakers have required that state agencies take a more critical look at spending, especially during lean budget years. School of Social Work faculty, including within the Jordan Institute’s Family and Children’s Resource Program (FCRP), are among those who regularly evaluate state programs, helping to connect research to practice and inform policy decisions.
For example, FCRP assessed the state’s foster parent training system a couple of years ago and found that county governments and private agencies that recruit and serve foster families needed to work better together and strengthen their support services. From that evaluation, the N.C. Division of Social Services contracted with FCRP to develop a toolkit to assist counties on how to work more effectively together and with the private sector to ensure foster children have the best opportunity of being placed in loving and stable homes.
“The goal was to give agencies in all 100 counties a way to evaluate their options and to select foster care providers based on quality of care and the outcomes they achieve,” said Mellicent Blythe, a clinical assistant professor and education specialist with FCRP. Without such measures, frontline workers run the risk of placing children where they can find empty beds, she added.
“Given that the research shows that states save money by finding safe and permanent homes for foster children and that the overall well-being of these children greatly improves, it just makes sense that we would want proven programs and practices that serve the best interests of children and the foster families who care for them,” Blythe said.
Gary Nelson understands the desire to ensure that social programs are providing something of value, especially during such austere times. Still, the social work professor worries that too many may weigh evidence of success with an all-or-nothing point of view. That approach could limit other possible solutions for more complex problems, such as issues around race, poverty, and gender, he said.
“If you start with evidence only, you’re often closed to seeing anything that may be different that doesn’t fit your model,” said Nelson, UNC’s Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Chair in Public Policy. “Then you force your model on things that it shouldn’t be forced on. So I think there’s a risk of overselling evidence-based policymaking simply because people want predictability and control. During periods of great change, when the institutions, the culture and the approach to change are themselves changing, it’s important to take the risk, innovate and follow the path that has not been taken with an eye toward improving the welfare of those you serve. So, for me, it’s how do you remain open to innovation and use evidence to inform.”
Even with current bipartisan support for evidence-based policymaking, its political fate remains uncertain given recent efforts in Congress to cut Obama’s six major initiatives.
Still, social work researchers such as Associate Professor Gina Chowa are optimistic that this new dawn of government decision-making will progress just as it has over the years internationally. Chowa, whose research focuses on the effects of asset ownership on youth and families in resource-limited countries, has seen organizations in many of these nations also struggle for the most efficient way to create the biggest impact.
“For example, so much money has been thrown at poverty in Africa, but we still have the poor,” Chowa said. “Why? Because we’ve been doing things that are not putting a dent in poverty. And so from that angle, it is important for us to provide evidence that will really make a difference in people’s lives.”
Chowa’s work on the financial inclusion project, YouthSave, is helping to do just that and is challenging traditional thinking about youth in low-income families. She is particularly interested in learning how accumulating savings impact a youth’s educational, economic, psychosocial, physical and mental well-being.
Historically, banks in resource-limited countries have been unwilling to work with low-income people and have barred youth under 18 from applying for an account. YouthSave has helped open those doors and has the potential to influence broader financial policies in Africa to ensure that more young people have access to banking services and thus, more opportunities to help lift themselves out of poverty, Chowa said. The study is already showing some promising results among young savers, including an improved attitude on life, she added.