Republicans Deploy an Old Tool in Combating Poverty: Evidence

The GOP is turning to evidence-based policy to address a host of challenges, but lawmakers in both parties have a long track record of politicizing outcomes.

House Republicans staked their claim to a share of the evidence-based policy movement last week. The proposals were embedded in a larger Republican framework for addressing poverty, the first in a series of such reports that are expected to be released over the next few weeks.

The framework, backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, is intended to lay the groundwork for a broader vision for government that the GOP can campaign on in the fall, rebranding the party while simultaneously conveying a sense of quiet competence and readiness to govern.

The plan got off to a rocky start. At an event unveiling the proposal at a shelter in southeast DC, the first six questions from reporters were focused on Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, whose comments on the qualifications of a Hispanic judge overseeing a case involving Trump University had generated enormous controversy.

The plan itself also drew criticism from Democrats in Congress and outside liberal groups. "Sadly, beneath the sugary rhetoric of the poverty proposal unveiled today, Republicans are advancing the same callous, trickle down policies they've been pushing for years," said the House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities called the plan's focus on poverty welcome, but said it was "seriously flawed."

Despite the pushback, Ryan may yet succeed. The spotlight of the presidential campaign has since shifted and Ryan's lieutenants in the House have begun to push some of the agenda forward.

"I think it is typical of Ryan to lay out an agenda and it has been for many years," said Ron Haskins, a former Republican congressional staffer who oversaw welfare reform efforts in the 1990s and is now with the Brookings Institution. "This is the way government should work. Explain it and defend it.”

"My number one thought when I saw it was that for the Speaker of the House to include something on evidence in his plan is a huge triumph," he said. "I can't imagine any other Speaker doing that."

Republican Evidence Proposals

Although commonly attributed to Ryan himself, the poverty plan was actually produced by a committee-led task force appointed by the Speaker in February. The report's recommendations are supported not just by Ryan, but by the Republican chairmen of several committees with jurisdiction over important pieces of the poverty agenda.

The plan includes several evidence-based policy proposals, including:

  • Increased Funding for Program Evaluations: The plan recommends that every federal social program be evaluated to determine whether it is getting results. It recommends redirecting a portion of program funding or existing research funds to high quality evaluations or to improved data collection.

  • Tiered-funding Strategies: The plan endorses requiring social programs to use a "tiered evidence" approach for funding, with the lowest level of funding reserved for the development and testing of new ideas, a middle tier with more funding that requires more rigorous evaluation, and the highest tier reserved for scaling programs that have proven to be effective. Tiered funding structures have been tested in a number of smaller programs launched by the Obama administration. More recently, the concept was incorporated into the reauthorization of the nation’s principal K-12 education law. It is also being used in a foster care bill being considered this week in the House.

  • Pay for Success: The plan endorses a funding approach called pay for success or social impact bonds. Such programs make payments contingent upon achieving pre-established performance goals that are often validated through third party evaluations. The Ways and Means Committee approved legislation in May to establish a new program at the Treasury Department.  A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate. Proponents hope that the legislation will be enacted later this year.

  • Increased Local Control and Flexibility with Accountability: The plan recommends allowing states the flexibility to link multiple social programs in ways that provide more holistic services. In exchange, states would be held accountable for performance, with rigorous evaluations used to determine whether the programs are working. The approach is similar to a bipartisan initiative called Performance Partnership Pilots, which was recently enacted by Congress and is now just underway.

  • Evidence-based Policy Commission: Established by legislation sponsored by Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and signed into law by the president on March 30, this commission will help speed the generation of rigorous evaluations by making recommendations that would give researchers greater access to federal data. Chaired by Katherine Abraham of the Maryland Population Research Center and co-chaired by Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, the commission is expected to begin its work soon.

Conservative Reactions

Reactions to the Republican plan among conservatives off Capitol Hill range from supportive to mixed. Evidence-based policy is often associated with organizations they view as left of center. While most are willing to give Ryan the benefit of the doubt, their outlook might be best described as guarded skepticism.

Most support greater investment in program evaluations. “I believe the feds should fund research. Even conservatives think the federal government should pay for evaluations, especially those with national implications,” said Haskins.

Others are more reserved. “A lot of the people doing these studies are perceived to be—and in fact are—left of center in their values and opinions,” said Robert Doar, the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

"Conservatives are justified in being a little cautious about this because we want to make sure the researchers don't have their thumb on the scale," he said. Doar suggested that conservatives would be more comfortable with scholars they view as more even-handed, such as Bruce Meyer at the University of Chicago or James Sullivan at Notre Dame.

David Muhlhausen, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says that studies from credible evaluation firms have merit, but it often takes a trained eye to interpret the findings. “Sometimes researchers will spin their results,” he said, “but as long as they are transparent on their findings and methods you can sort through that.”

There is less agreement about what to do with such evidence, however. "While I applaud the call for using evidence, evidence-based policymaking without fiscal discipline is a mirage,” said Muhlhausen.

“No matter how often members of Congress state that they want to fund what works and defund what does not work, such pronouncements mean little when, year after year, they continue to pass appropriations bills funding social programs that are known to be ineffective," he said.

“Ultimately, data and evidence are going to be subsumed by political agendas,” said Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and former domestic policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “Congress will politicize it and pursue whatever agenda they had to begin with.”

Those observations seem to be backed up by history. A 2008 GAO analysis of efforts made under President George W. Bush to tie budgets to evaluation results found that the ratings were usually ignored on Capitol Hill. Nevertheless, GAO commended the initiative, called the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), for better integrating evidence into the budget process.

“PART for the first time set the expectation that every government program would conduct rigorous evaluations and integrate them into their performance improvement efforts,” said Robert Shea, a former Associate Director for Management at OMB who oversaw the Bush effort.

Some of the latest House proposals mirror this earlier approach. "Tiered evidence and paying for performance are natural conservative ideas,” said Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute, who wrote a favorable review of the House plan in Forbes. “What we know about most social programs is that when they are rigorously evaluated they don't produce the intended outcomes. The result is that there will be fewer ineffective programs and smaller government."

There is less agreement about the appropriate relationship between the federal government and the states, however. Cass called the Ryan plan “disappointing” in an article for the conservative National Review. "The agenda does not genuinely empower state and local governments to take control,” he wrote. “It suggests waivers here and waivers there, all subject to approval by federal bureaucrats."

Haskins of the Brookings Institution disagrees, arguing that waivers issued during the Reagan administration helped pave the way for welfare reform in 1990s. He argues for a continuation of the Reagan approach, using competitive waivers coupled with rigorous evaluations. "The states are so uneven. Some would do a good job. Others may not do anything,” he said.

“We have seen the Obama administration using waivers in bad ways,” countered Cass, pointing to the administration’s record under No Child Left Behind before it was repealed last year.

“More importantly, there is an actual track record of states pursuing reforms that worked,” he said. “Welfare reform in Wisconsin and health care reform in Massachusetts are the two most obvious examples. Mitch Daniels had an impressive track record of reform in Indiana.”

“If the choice is between federal control that has proven to be sclerotic and ineffective, or state control that shows blips of reform when allowed and will make progress in at least some cases, I’ll take the latter,” he said.

The Road Ahead

Despite the diversity of conservative views, congressional Republicans are pressing ahead. The Ways and Means Committee approved a round of related bills in May. Speaking on background, a GOP leadership aide said that House Republicans will work to support both the reforms in the Ryan blueprint and the legislation that moved through the committee.

Meanwhile, although Trump skipped a Ryan anti-poverty event in January, he may yet endorse Ryan’s agenda. “He wants to take people out of poverty. So do I. We`re going to come up with a plan,” he said June 5 on CBS’s Face the Nation.

Ryan and Trump have different views and political styles, but at the moment they represent the collective will of the Republican Party. It is unclear whether Ryan will succeed in redefining his party’s image as it heads into the fall elections, but regardless of that outcome, his ideas may be here to stay.

Patrick Lester is the director of the Social Innovation Research Center.