A recent event at the Brookings Institution discussed the post-election landscape for programming that impacts low-income populations. Often current discussions on reform focus on simplifying programming through only supporting activities that have an existing evidence base illustrating success. While promising and proven practices should be a goal, unfortunately many legislators link this model to the assumption that such reforms will automatically save much money. Therefore, those policymakers often attach up-front spending cuts to any proposals to improve programming. Trying to combat this perspective, there was an expressed desire among speakers at this Brookings event to find a way to separate attempts at cutting federal spending from attempts to reform and improve programs. Reducing spending through efficiency is an admirable goal, and hopefully reforms do make programs more efficient. But savings through simplification of service delivery should not be assumed outright and without regard to potentially increasing need. This focus on spending reduction is a key sticking point preventing legislators from finding common ground on reauthorizing or updating legislation, which would provide much-needed reforms to programs that assist youth and young adults.
With such intense focus on evidence-based practices, program evaluation is now explicitly tied to funding. Subsequently, service providers are often reluctant to let researchers in because they fear a bad evaluation, which could effectively eliminate any funding for their programming. As noted by researchers involved in evaluation during a September panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute, evaluation is meant to help programs improve their services for the future, not as a judge and jury to determine whether a program receives funding or not.
While speaking at the Brookings event, Gene Sperling, Director of the White House National Economic Council, similarly advocated for evaluation and data collection to be disconnected from funding decisions. A model that emphasizes evidence-based practices can be useful, but should not be taken so far as to determine the role of government in the employment training and education field. As Mr. Sperling pointed out, there should not be a double standard to programs for disadvantaged populations. He mentioned, for example, when particular medical research does not result in a cure for cancer, people do not respond by saying that the government should not dedicate resources to cancer research. Yet programming specifically designed to help disadvantaged populations must constantly face this funding-oriented obstacle.