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Social Programs That Work

Policy, Psychology, experiments

WASHINGTON — HARDLY anyone knows it, but since its earliest days the Obama administration has been pursuing the most important initiative in the history of federal attempts to use evidence to improve social programs.

Despite decades of efforts and trillions of dollars in spending, rigorous evaluations typically find that around 75 percent of programs or practices that are intended to help people do better at school or at work have little or no effect. Studies of the early childhood education program Head Start and the substance-abuse prevention program D.A.R.E. show that even when there are benefits, they are often modest and not enduring.

As a policy analyst who helped House Republicans design the 1996 welfare overhaul and who later advised President George W. Bush on social policy, I am committed to the principle that the government should fund only social welfare programs that work. That’s why it’s imperative that the new Congress reject efforts by some Republicans to cut the Obama administration’s evidence-based programs. Especially in a time of austerity, policy makers must know which programs work, and which don’t.

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