Performance and Outcomes in the Ryan Anti-poverty Plan

On July 24, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) gave a major speech on poverty that may foreshadow his party’s thinking if Republicans retake the White House in 2016. The speech was accompanied by the release of a 73-page plan, which he called a “discussion draft.”

Ryan’s plan appears to be part of a concerted effort by some Republicans to reshape their party as a party of ideas — particularly as it heads into the mid-term elections this fall and the presidential race that will follow. (See Can the G.O.P. Be a Party of Ideas? in The New York Times Magazine).

While Ryan’s plan as a whole has been reviewed by commentators on both the left and right, there has been less attention paid to its performance and outcomes aspects.

Overall, the plan includes several proposals, including the creation of a new Commission on Evidence-based Policymaking as well as several specific proposals for particular programs:

Opportunity Grant
In discussing a proposed “Opportunity Grant,” which would be created by block granting several existing programs, the proposal suggests that states would be subject to accountability standards.

[S]tates should rigorously test the results via randomized controlled trials when possible. The federal government should partner with states and contract with independent evaluators in order to find out what works. States must work with the third-party evaluator to evaluate any benefits or problems with a new program. With a number of different approaches, we can find how best to expand opportunity. (p. 19)

Each state will approve a list of certified providers that are held accountable for providing quality service and achieving results (such as moving people to work, out of poverty, and off of assistance). … At the most basic level, successful completion of a contract will involve an able-bodied individual obtaining a job and earning enough to live above the poverty line. Each state may choose to define success slightly differently insofar as those basic conditions are met. (p. 20)

Head Start: In the plan’s proposal to block grant Head Start, it suggests that the program should be rigorously evaluated along the lines of the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program. (p. 39)

Jon Baron at the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy notes that “rigorous studies have identified several home visiting program models that are highly effective.” He also highlights that Nurse-Family Partnerships, for instance, have the “strongest evidence of effectiveness” and are implemented by almost two-thirds of MIECHV grantees. Congress is still waiting for a full evaluation of the MIECHV program. But RAND’s Rebecca Kilburn notes MIECHV’s effective practices—e.g., concentrating funding on proven models and providing technical support—“raise the likelihood that MIECHV will . . . produce the best results possible for at-risk families.”

In short, this proposal would lay the groundwork for Head Start to eventually work more like MIECHV: Spend the bulk of money on proven methods, evaluate other approaches through experimentation, and pursue solutions that demonstrate results. By encouraging innovation and holding providers accountable, this proposal will give low-income parents more—and better—choices. Parental choice will allow the best providers to rise to the top, improving quality for children.


Building off the work of Ron Haskins, Harry Holzer, and Robert Lerman, one way to reform these programs would be to collapse them into a single grant program, allowing schools to use “any of the college preparation approaches now allowed by the separate programs but would base funding decisions on performance” outcomes such as enrollment, graduation rates, and use of best practices such as data collection and rigorous analysis. (p. 47)

Higher Education Accreditation Reform

Building on the reforms offered by Senator Mike Lee of Utah, new accreditors would submit to the Department certification standards as well as reporting requirements, credit transfer plans, and outcome-based standards. (pp. 48-49)

Commission on Evidence-based Policy Making: The plan describes the creation of a proposed commission to encourage evidence-based policy making. (p. 67)

Both policymakers and researchers have an interest in understanding the impact of government programs. And these programs collect information on participants and the benefits they receive. This data is critical to answering important questions: Who benefits from these programs? Do they work? Are there unintended consequences? With today’s more sophisticated computing technology, data-collection and -storage capabilities, researchers could link data on individuals across multiple data sources.

Unfortunately, these data sources are usually off limits to policymakers or researchers and are rarely made available in a way that can facilitate program evaluation. These barriers prevent us from learning from our mistakes and designing better anti-poverty programs. Improved access and integrated data, with the proper privacy and confidentiality safeguards, could even facilitate studies which can help to illuminate the root causes of poverty and economic immobility.

The Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making

This proposal would create a commission of leading economists, statisticians, program administrators, and privacy experts to advise Congress on:

1. Whether and how to create a Clearinghouse for Program and Survey Data. The clearinghouse, if established, would facilitate the merging of data on government programs with other administrative data so researchers could link anonymous participants across programs (such as unemployment-insurance records) and to respondents in surveys and thereby provide a more complete picture of program take-up, duration, benefits received, program impact, and other key pieces of information. In addition to programmatic data at the federal level, the commission would also consider the inclusion of state, local, and even educational datasets, such as the National Student Clearinghouse.

2. How to ensure that this data matching would not compromise the privacy rights of program participants or survey respondents. By addressing this issue, the commission can get out ahead of any privacy concerns that may arise in the future as well as a result from data-merging.

3. How to fund the Clearinghouse without adding to the federal budget deficit (such as through user fees for participating academic and other research institutions).

4. How to bolster the study of economic mobility by considering ways to improve and expand access to longitudinal data. This could include improvements in linking parents and children within datasets to facilitate intergenerational studies as well as linking datasets (such as the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and National Longitudinal Survey of Youth) to outside administrative sources.

5. How best to incorporate outcomes measurement and institutionalize randomized controlled trials into program design.

Congress would pay for the Commission with existing funding streams.


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