Bridging the Gap Between Research and Policy

New census estimates for counties and school districts indicate that a third of all counties in 2010 had school-age poverty rates that were significantly higher than the national poverty rate. This is one of many statistics about the welfare of U.S. children that compels us to review the supports we currently provide and in the future might provide to children and their families.

But in challenging fiscal times, how do we make decisions about what programs to support?

A major objective of The Future of Children is to translate evidence-based research for policy makers, practitioners, and others working in the field. Although no social science research is perfect, quality research can help policy makers and practitioners better understand what works best for children, and allocate finite resources to meet their needs.

The Obama administration embraces evidence-based programming. But interpreting evidence is often as important as the evidence itself, particularly when the views of policymakers and interest groups may influence interpretations of research outcomes. According to a Future of Children policy brief, the views of policymakers and those in office often outweigh the evidence, and influential interest groups may be more concerned with the people and organizations they serve than with evaluation outcomes.

In a recent presentation for the University-Based Child and Family Policy Consortium, Jon Baron, President of the The Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy and Woodrow Wilson School alumnus, spoke about the benefits and challenges of using evidence to inform policy and program development. It is tempting for programs to want to show success and for politicians to want to quickly dismiss what does not work, but is better to create an environment that supports accurate research and allows for program growth over time. Working closely with the Office of Management and Budget, the Coalition uses a two-tiered approach: providing support for programs with the strongest positive evidence from randomized trials, while rigorously evaluating programs with less evidence.

Mr. Baron presented two examples of programs that have yielded positive results among disadvantaged groups, one in the field of education and the other in child health and wellbeing, both of which were featured in Future of Children volumes:

In education, the H&R Block FAFSA Project yielded strong positive effects, according to Mr. Baron. As described in the Future of Children issue Transition to Adulthood and highlighted in a past blog, the goal of the intervention project is to inform low-income families of the financial aid that could be available to them and to help them make informed decisions about whether or not to apply and enroll in college. Findings from randomized experiments show that the program increased college enrollment for low- and moderate-income students by about 26% when compared to the control group.

In child wellbeing, rigorous social science evaluations of home-visiting programs designed to improve parenting and reduce child maltreatment convinced President Barack Obama’s admin­istration to initiate a multi-billion-dollar federal program to expand a particular model of home visiting, the Nurse Family Partnership (NFP). As summarized in The Future of Children’s issue on Preventing Child Maltreatment, in this program, specially trained registered nurses conduct regular home visits to low-income first-time mothers to promote healthy behavior during pregnancy and positive parenting skills.

Key to the success of these and future initiatives is working with policy makers and practitioners to better understand the problems they are trying to solve, their social networks, and the ways by which they acquire, interpret, and use research. The next step is then to effectively translate unbiased research that addresses their questions into information that they can use.

The Future of Children publishes two volumes and policy briefs each year to bring research on various topics about child wellbeing to those working on the frontline. To read our volumes and policy briefs, click here. To view webcasts from some of our outreach events, click here.