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From Research to Policy: Lessons from Individual Development Accounts

The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

From Research to Policy: Lessons from Individual Development Accounts


There goes in the world a notion that the scholar should be a recluse, a valetudinarian.... As far as this is true of the studious classes, it is not just and wise. Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential.... Without it, thought can never ripen into truth... (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

On January 27, 2000, I was in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for an afternoon planning session and an evening speech on Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), which are matched savings accounts for the poor. Following dinner, I returned to my hotel in time to watch President Bill Clinton's State of the Union Address. The research team at the Center for Social Development (CSD) at Washington University had been providing research data on IDAs to the White House and Treasury Department over the preceding months. The data showed that low-income people were saving an average of $33 per month in IDAs (later reported in Sherraden et al. 2000). We had been told that the president would propose some form of matched savings policy for the poor. In his address, the president said,

Tens of millions of Americans live from paycheck to paycheck. As hard as they work, they still don't have the opportunity to save. Too few can make use of IRAs and 401(k) plans. We should do more to help all working families save and accumulate wealth. That's the idea behind the Individual Development Accounts, the IDAs. I ask you to take that idea to a new level, with new retirement savings accounts that enable every low- and moderate-income family in America to save for retirement, a first home; a medical emergency, or a college education. I propose to match their contributions, however small, dollar for dollar, every year they save (Clinton 2000).

In a separate publication that day, the White House pointed to the influence of IDA research, which is now published in the CSD report, Saving Patterns in IDA Programs:

The President's proposal builds on the successful model of Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), extending generous matches to all low- and moderate-income families to encourage them to develop savings and assets (The White House 2000).

This lecture is a case study and reflection on the development of IDAs and asset building for low- and moderate-income families as a policy innovation. I discuss the formulation and circulation of the idea, work with policy institutes and government officials, the legislative process at federal and state levels, and the role of research. Following the case description, I offer some thoughts on policy innovation, particularly from the standpoint of the applied social sciences.

To greatly oversimplify, there are three types of policy work: to defend current policy, to extend current policy, and to innovate. All three are important and necessary in consumer studies, public health, social work, and other applied social sciences. At times it is essential to defend; at other times it is possible to extend; and less frequently, there is an opportunity for innovation. This discussion is about innovation, which I define here as putting in place a decidedly new way of doing things that is defined in law and regulation, is funded and operational, affects real people at a meaningful scale, and is sustainable. Innovation in this sense is uncommon and difficult to accomplish. By definition, the work is uncharted and likely to be long term. Mistakes and setbacks are a normal part of the process.

As a clarification, there are a lot of activities that are sometimes called policy innovation that may fall short of actual impact. This could be a long list, and I mention only a few. Policy innovation is not policy implications at the end of a research article. Policy innovation is not a policy agenda in the form of a list of what would be desirable. Policy innovation is not taking the high moral ground on an issue. Policy innovation is not testifying before the Congress or participation in a political discussion, even if it is at the State House or the White House.

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