Advancing Evidence-Based Policymaking to Solve Social Problems

By Liebman, Jeffrey B. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Advancing Evidence-Based Policymaking to Solve Social Problems


Liebman, Jeffrey B., Issues in Science and Technology


Despite spending billions and billions of dollars each year, the United States is simply not making rapid enough progress in addressing a range of social problems. Many children are poorly prepared to start or advance in school. Many prisoners end up back in jail after being released. Many new and displaced workers lack skills to succeed in the workplace. Many people suffer from chronic illnesses such as diabetes and asthma. In the face of these and other social problems, the nation has either failed to develop effective solutions, failed to prove that the solutions work, or failed to scale up the solutions that do work.

These failures have adverse consequences for the affected individuals and their communities; they also damage the nation's economic health. At the most basic level, the nation's prosperity depends on the productivity of its workforce and the share of residents who are employed. But when there are 7 million youth who are neither in school nor working, when half of low-income fourth-graders are not reading at even a basic level, when 1 in 15 African American men is incarcerated, and when the nation ranks no better than average in college graduation rates among developed countries, the United States is clearly not maximizing the potential of its workforce. The results are felt in a lower standard living for individuals and in reduced economic growth for the nation.

Solving such social problems, difficult under any circumstances, is complicated by the nation's continuing fiscal woes. At every level of government, policymakers are facing the same challenge: How do we continue to innovate and make additional progress in addressing the nation's problems when budget cuts are making it difficult, if not impossible, to hold onto the gains we have already made? The only way to keep making progress in this fiscal environment is to produce more value with each dollar that government spends. Doing so will require better use of evidence in policymaking.

The good news is that over the past decade, new evidence-based practices have emerged, at the federal, state, and local levels that simultaneously offer the potential to speed up progress in addressing social problems and to make better use of taxpayer dollars. Further, there are a number of clear steps that the federal government can take to promote the use of these practices throughout all levels of government.

If these evidence-based approaches to policymaking spread widely, we will achieve better outcomes with government expenditures by replacing less-effective government programs with programs that work better, and we will develop new, more-effective approaches. But if our goal is to make significant progress in addressing our most serious social problems, simply expanding the use of these strategies is unlikely to be enough to produce the results we require. We need to supplement the wide diffusion of these practices with a more-focused approach that aims to supply solutions for specific high-priority populations. To this end, I propose that the government launch two initiatives--that will span a decade and target entire populations of at-risk individuals in specific communities.

The various evidence-based practices that have emerged in recent years fall into five general categories, based on the challenges they are intended to address. These challenges are:

Subsidizing learning and experimentation to develop new solutions. After 40 years of applying rigorous evaluation methods to social policy, researchers and the government have learned a lot about what works and what does not. But for many of the most important social problems, there are no proven, cost-effective, scalable strategies. The challenge is how to finance needed program development and experimentation. If the government or a philanthropy funds 10 promising early childhood interventions and only one succeeds, and that one can be scaled nationwide, then the social benefits of the overall initiative will be immense. …

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