Tie funding of anti-poverty programs to proven effectiveness

This Feb. 6, 2010 file photo shows a sign announcing the acceptance of electronic Benefit Transfer cards at a farmers market in Roseville, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

The Wall Street Journal reports: “The U.S. and other wealthy nations have spent trillions of dollars over the past half-century trying to lift the world’s poorest people out of penury, with largely disappointing results. In 1966, shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty, 14.7 percent of Americans were poor, under the official definition of the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2013, 14.5 percent of Americans were poor.”

Finally, after decades of failure there is a movement afoot to launch “a new generation of experimental programs focusing not on large-scale social support and development but on helping the poor and indebted to save more, live better and scramble up in their own way.” Shocking, isn’t it, that we’ve been spending trillions of dollars not knowing what would actual help alleviate poverty?

“Until recently, most governments, development agencies and nongovernmental organizations aiding the poor didn’t rely on the scientific method to figure out what works, what doesn’t and why. So, says MIT economist Esther Duflo, ‘We are trying to promote a culture of learning that will permeate governments and NGOs and businesses to such an extent that it will become par for the course.’ Much of the randomistas’ fieldwork is built on the findings of modern psychology about the limitations of the human mind, gleaned largely from experiments in the world’s richest countries.

“ ‘The daunting realization is that we don’t know what the hell we’re doing in most fields of life, especially the ones that involve people,’ says Richard Thaler, professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and author of the new book ‘Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics.’ He adds, ‘The alternative to guessing is to run experiments.’ ”

Drawing on the burgeoning field of behavioral economics, the movement need not be limited to individual decision-making. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, argues in favor of tackling “problems at the level of communities or entire societies, rather than just households,” but the two are not, of course, mutually exclusive. Rather than attack the safety net per se or insinuate that extended dependency is purely a moral failing, conservatives can bring much to the discussion. They, of course, have railed, rightly so, at the failure of the war on poverty, but what they have not done is offered a compelling alternative other than free-market economics based on the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. Those conservatives serious about replacing the flawed welfare state would be wise to adopt a number of principles.

First, this is not about saving money; it is about saving people who are ill-served by large, bureaucratic programs. So long as conservatives approach the topic with green eyeshades and cost-cutting mentalities, they are not going to be seen as sincere advocates for the poor. In the long run, one certainly hopes that money will be saved when once previously dependent people become self-sufficient, but for now conservatives should stipulate up front that they are willing to match current spending levels.

Second, they need to make the case that the endeavor is not hopeless. What is hopeless is continuing to fund programs that have not in fact moved people out of poverty. Liberals cannot honestly defend spending money on things that don’t help the poor if we can figure out what does help them. Even the most penny-pinching conservative would be hard-pressed to deny funding at existing levels for programs that work to end dependence.

Third, conservatives should emphasize that one of the most successful programs — welfare reform — was a conservative innovation with measurable results. They should, as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and others have suggested, demand anti-poverty programs adopt metrics for measuring success. It seems obvious that we should fund what does work and stop spending on money on things that don’t. Once we do know what is working, we can cull the most successful programs, determine common features and fine-tune them based on experience.

And finally, the beauty of the U.S. political system is that the foundation for large-scale experimentation is already in place — the federal system. Through grants, experimentation and results-oriented examination, states and localities can find the best of the best, while accounting for local variations. In the guidebook for Reform Conservatism, “Room to Grow,” Ramesh Ponnuru writes, “We have to show that we can have wider access to health care, an affordable safety net, opportunities to learn, and the like, without granting ever more power to government.”

It is shocking that in 50 years of waging the war on poverty, we have essentially have ignored the fundamental requirement of all government action: Does it work? One of the great tragedies of the hyperpoliticization of universities is that we are deprived of the benefits of fact-based, credible research that should provide the basis for education, health care and other critical policies. How do you help immigrants assimilate faster? What makes a good teacher? How do you alleviate poverty? Given how far we have come in the hard sciences, it is remarkable how poorly we are equipped to deal with economic and social issues. This, I would suggest, is where conservative scholars and officials in particular, I think, can make real headway.

Refusing to examine and reform programs designed to help the poor is a moral failing as much as an economic or political one. Conservatives should challenge their ideological rivals to stop looking at inputs (dollars spent) and good intentions and instead demand results. With agreement on that essential and fundamental point, we might then direct resources properly and have something to show for the billions and billions we spend.

Jennifer Rubin is a columnist for the The Washington Post.