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The Biden Administration

5 Ways to Move the Needle on Major U.S. Social Problems

The Biden administration has the opportunity to impact critical problems like education and poverty through social spending that incorporates rigorous evaluations to grow the number of exceptional interventions, along with incentives and support for states and localities to put them into widespread use.

Graduates of Baruch College of the City University of New York cheer as their 2017 commencement comes to a close June 5 at Barclays Center in New York. CUNY's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs model has become such a success at improving graduation rates that it is being replicated at colleges across the country with support from Arnold Ventures. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

We know from the history of rigorous program evaluations that surprisingly few social programs and practices (“interventions”) produce the hoped-for impact on people’s lives in areas such as education, poverty reduction, and crime and substance abuse prevention. However, exceptional interventions that produce important improvements in people’s lives do exist. If our country hopes to move the needle on critical problems like educational failure, stagnant wages, and opioid abuse, U.S. social spending must incorporate rigorous evaluations to grow the number of these exceptional interventions, along with incentives and support for states and localities to put them into widespread use.

A small but growing body of social interventions have been rigorously shown to produce sizable, sustained effects on important life outcomes. Illustrative examples with sizable effects demonstrated in high-quality randomized controlled trials (RCTs) include:

  • Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), a comprehensive community college program for low-income students that increased the graduation rate by 11 percentage points eight years after study entry
  • Nevada’s Reemployment and Eligibility Assessment (REA) Program, a low-cost program for unemployment insurance claimants that increased earnings by 15 percent over the three years after study entry and produced net savings to the government
  • Year Up, a workforce training program for low-income young adults that increased their earnings by 30 – 40 percent ($7,000-$8,000) per year over the four years following program completion.

Unfortunately, most large federal social programs disburse funds to state and local activities through a formula or other mechanism that pays little or no heed to which activities are effective. The problem with this approach is that social interventions with weak or no effects may receive support in perpetuity under these funding streams, whereas highly-effective interventions — such as those described above — are not prioritized for funding and may never receive support.

Here is what the next administration should do:

#1 Increase government funding for rigorous evaluations in order to build the body of social interventions shown to produce important improvements in people’s lives.

To optimize the chances of success, this would include prioritizing funding for RCTs of interventions that have promising prior evidence.

#2 Fund demonstration projects to expand interventions with credible evidence of sizable effects, coupled with RCT evaluations to hopefully replicate these effects at scale.

Our Social Programs That Work website identifies interventions that have been rigorously shown to produce important effects and would be strong candidates for such demonstrations.

#3 Redesign large federal social programs to incorporate a tiered evidence” grantmaking approach. 

In tiered-evidence federal programs, credible evidence of effectiveness determines which interventions receive the largest grant awards, and grantees are required to participate in rigorous evaluations to build new evidence. Examples of tiered evidence programs include the U.S. Department of Education’s Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program, enacted by Congress in 2015, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Family First foster care prevention services program, enacted in 2018.

#4 Create a federal Funding Match for Evidence initiative, aimed at focusing existing social spending on proven-effective interventions.

This initiative would provide an opportunity for states and localities to qualify for additional federal match funding if they dedicate some of their existing funds from federal, state, and other sources to the expansion of interventions meeting the highest evidence standards. The program would thus serve as a vehicle to replicate and scale proven interventions with sizable impacts on education, earnings, and other important life outcomes.

#5 In general, follow the evidence.

Recognize that making progress on U.S. social problems takes more than just increased government spending on education, workforce training, community development, healthcare, police training, and other priorities. However well-intentioned those investments may be, we’ve seen again and again that well-meaning government programs and policies too often fall short by funding interventions found to be ineffective when rigorously studied. Evidence-based social spending offers a path to progress on major U.S. social problems that spending-as-usual does not.