Wasteful Spending Continues Despite an ‘Evidence-based’ Policy Agenda

by David B. Muhlhausen

In a New York Times Economix blog post, Laura D’Andrea Tyson, a former White House adviser to President Clinton, and Jonathan Greenblatt,  a current adviser to President Obama, assert that the Obama administration is responding to budgetary constraints by requiring “more evidence-based research on program performance and the reallocation of funds from less-effective programs to more effective ones.” On the first point, the Obama administration is taking a positive step in funding evidenced-based research. The federal government should fund research to assess the effectiveness of social programs. Even more wisely, the federal government should stop wasting resources on social programs that evidence-based research clearly indicates are ineffective.

Has evidence-based research led to real reductions of spending on ineffective social programs? 

Tyson and Greenblatt fail to mention what is being done with any social programs that have been found to be ineffective. Instead of answering this question, they concentrate on the creation of new spending programs, like the Social Innovation Fund which is intended to continue funding for grantees only if they can demonstrate success. While the promise of this fund is often touted, we still do not know whether this process leads to the improved performance of federal social programs. 

The Obama administration unfortunately ignores evaluations that produce results they do not like. In comparison with the more than $175 million spent on Social Innovation Fund grants, the Obama administration has called for an additional $300 million for Head Start, and its subsidiary, Early Head Start. The administration wants to spend a total of $8.9 billion for the early-childhood programs in fiscal year 2015. These programs have received additional “investments” from the Obama administration and Congress in previous years, despite rigorous evidence-based research that strongly demonstrates these programs are ineffective at benefiting children.

As a general rule, policy decisions should be backed by evidence-based research. However, many on the Left appear to only use evidence-based research to justify new spending, while ignoring the scientifically rigorous evidence that many federal social programs are frequently found to be ineffective.

— David B. Muhlhausen is a research fellow in empirical policy analysis in the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation and the author of Do Federal Social Programs Work?

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