On February 14, 2011, President Obama released the 2012 federal budget, and a flood of media responses followed. For a moment, it appeared that children might fare well in the proposed budget: domestic discretionary spending remained level, and the proposed budget asked for $77.4 billion in education funding as well as continued and increased funding for early education, teacher support, and community initiatives, among others.
Then the House of Representatives responded, proposing a $61 billion reduction, including cuts to the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant, the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, Head Start, Community Health Centers, and Title I (K-12 education for low-income students), among others. President Obama threatened to veto these cuts, which could potentially result in a government shutdown. The House responded by suggesting a temporary spending bill, which would institute House-passed cuts on a pro-rated basis.
Even if these cuts pass, they are relatively minimal when compared to the impact that potential state budget cuts could have on children’s futures. State and local revenues fund the bulk of social programs for youth, most notably in education and health care. And while the federal government can operate without a balanced budget, states cannot. Cuts will be made, and public debate will rage, as it has in Wisconsin.
Part of the conflict over budget cuts arises from the reality that, while the majority of Americans support the idea of spending cuts in order to reduce government deficits, they are deeply divided when it comes to the areas in which these cuts will be made.
How can governments decide which funding is the most valuable and which can be eliminated? What can the public do to help inform these decisions?
One suggestion, already embraced by the Obama administration, is to look to evidence-based programming. While no social science research is perfect, quality evaluations can provide the government with an idea of what strategies work best and thus have a better chance of producing the greatest marginal return for every dollar spent.
For example, in an upcoming Future of Children policy brief (check back in March for our latest volume), Ron Haskins and Marta Tienda note that although a high-quality national evaluation shows that the federal Head Start program is not adequately preparing preschoolers for the public schools, many evaluations show that state pre-K programs promote school readiness for four-year olds more effectively than Head Start. States, then, might be able to produce greater benefits for poor children than does the current Head Start program. Giving the Department of Health and Human Services the authority to experiment by allowing a few states to control Head Start funding and then rigorously evaluating the success of the programs could help the government reapportion funding so that it is more effective.
This is just one example of how research-based strategies can inform policy. Obviously, such decisions cannot fully account for the realities that will emerge from decreased funding to programs more generally. Such strategies could, however, help the country continue to improve programs’ efficacy and shift the country’s focus to a more positive perspective during a time of challenging economic realities.
As the federal and hopefully state governments begin embracing a culture that supports evidence-based practice, it is important that the public advocates for a culture of research that:
-Gives programs the freedom to show both what is working and what is not working, in order to make incremental improvements to programs. It is tempting for programs to want to show success and for politicians to want to quickly dismiss what does not work. It is better to create an environment that supports accurate research and allows for program growth over time.
-Advocates for an unbiased presentation of research. It is easy to use research to support any political agenda, and it is important that the public holds politicians accountable for presenting the full range of findings.
Using and funding (a topic for another blog) social science research to inform policy decision making is a complex process and will certainly take time to perfect – well beyond this budget cycle. However, it is important to begin embracing this perspective now, so that our country continues to make better use of its limited funds. More money, after all, does not always mean better results.
The Future of Children compiles the best research to date on social issues in order to help policy makers, practitioners, and civilians make informed decisions. Our most recent volumes on Fragile Families, Transitions to Adulthood, Preventing Child Maltreatment, and America’s High Schools, and the associated executive summaries and policy briefs, provide clear recommendations that can be helpful when considering the impact of budget cuts on the future of children.