Accuracy in Media

“A major goal of social science is […] to help policy makers make informed decision. This is especially true of social scientists who study children,” begins “Social Science Rising: A Tale of Evidence Shaping Public Policy,” an article written by Ron Haskins, Christina Paxson, and Jeanne Brooks-Gun, and published in the Fall 2009 edition of The Future of Children.

The article discusses the application of social science to public policy using the case study of home visits. This is an important example because, as the writers point out, “In February 2009, President Barack Obama recommended spending up to $8 billion over the next ten years on a nurse home-visiting program aimed at helping poor mothers learn parenting behaviors that would boost their children’s development.”

The authors go on to explain what exactly “home-visiting programs” are. First, they write, there are a variety of models. But all of the home-visiting programs have one thing in common: they all share “the view that services delivered in a family’s home will have a positive impact on parenting, which in turn can influence the long-term development of the child.”

The writers first describe the problems with evidence. Not only are most legislators unresponsive to evidence, they argue, but also many times evidence for or against a program is situational. Many programs that work well in one area or with one demographic may not work as well under other circumstances.

The authors assert that it may not be wise to assume that one program is better than another based on evidence that may have been merely situational. The authors state that this is especially a problem now, as President Obama has decided to focus only on one program-a program developed by David Olds-based on limited evidence. The authors assert that President Obama’s focus on the Olds program currently threatens to empower this program with extra funding while ignoring other potentially beneficial methods and programs of home visiting.

The writers go on to discuss the fact that many groups are coalescing to fight the exclusive favoring of the Olds program; these groups are generally other home-visiting programs that believe they, too, ought to be federally funded. The authors caution the government against extrapolating: programs that work well on a local level may not be successful nationally.

Haskins et al. point to a bill written by U.S. Representative Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), which would allow a variety of funding levels for home-visiting programs: the best programs would get more funding than those with less evidence in their favor. The authors mention that Peter Orszag, Obama’s closest advisor on budgeting, has announced an expansion in government funds that will go directly toward “conducting rigorous program evaluations and then using the evidence to make funding decisions.” It appears as though the government itself will decide what counts as evidence, based on evaluations it itself conducts.

The authors seem to believe that the Obama administration’s push for evidence is novel: “It must be counted as a victory for social science that the federal policy process now hinges importantly on evidence,” they write, as if evidence never mattered before. They argue that Congress should take into consideration the idea that there may not be a one-size-fits-all home-visiting program, and they urge Congress too to consider the scope of the programs they hope to fund.

“In the current debate over home visiting, social scientists have taken another step toward the goal of getting policy makers to consider high-quality evidence when making program funding decisions,” the authors conclude. It is clear that while they may not be completely pleased with the way the debate over home visiting is turning out, they certainly are pleased that an evidence standard is being debated at all.


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