We seem to have stopped doing things because they are kind, or fair, or the decent thing to do. Somewhere along the way advocates for social programs started being expected to go beyond designing programs that simply meet people's needs. Today, they are expected to predict the long and short term "outcomes" of their efforts, and sometimes expected to produce a level of cost-avoidance that makes the proposed program pay for itself.

For example, it is not enough today to run an after school youth program that kids enjoy, and that their parents think is good for them. At least not in a poor community. In addition, the pressure is on to show that the program reduces crime, or drug abuse, or teen pregnancy, and as a result its costs are more than offset by future public savings. It is as though we do not see the value in providing children with clean, safe, fun places to play and grow unless we can show that the expenditure will make them less likely to kill or rob the rest of us.

The easy explanation for this hardball, business-like approach is that our society has become cold-hearted and tight-fisted and no longer wants to be kind or helpful and maybe that is to some extent true. But another part of the story is that the social policy field helped to create this level of expectation by exaggerating our ability to measure long term and discrete results. In order to justify funding for programs we created a lot of pseudo-science and claimed that we could prove things at a much higher degree of certainty than is true.

The result is a system in which we now cannot admit that evidence is scant and shaky and have to continue pumping up expectations about not only our successes but about our ability to measure success. There are folks out there from prestigious scientific think tanks telling people that $1 spent on this or that program will produce $7.11 in savings. Not about $7, not $7.10, but $7.11. Surely this is foolishness.

Just among us, let's admit that there is a world of difference between what we know and what we believe. Let's closely examine the notion that we can precisely measure the long term impact of progressive social interventions. The truth is that we really know very little about why Johnny becomes a killer while his brother Billy becomes a dentist. But while we may not be able to really prove that playing Little League baseball will keep Johnny from a life of crime, we do know that he will not be committing crimes during the time he is playing second base and that, whatever else playing ball might do, it can't hurt.

Most people believe that recreation contributes to the development of character and that kids learn valuable social skills in after-school activities. We know that playing ball is fun and believe that all kids should have an opportunity to have fun, as a privilege of being members of the richest society in the world. We know that well-to-do and middle class kids have a good deal of access to sports, recreation, arts, and entertainment of all sorts and that, as parents, we would not have it any other way. But we also know that these resources are scarce in low income neighborhoods. Shouldn't that be a convincing enough argument to garner support for publicly funded after-school programs that are of high quality?

Despite the presence of a large and vibrant program evaluation industry, trying to prove "what works" leads to a dizzying and complex world of cause and effect, participant selection, control groups, Hawthorn effects, losing track of participants over time, margins of error, and inevitable informed guessing. Ironically, this enormous effort and expense is often intended to prove things that are already generally believed. Common sense says that kids do better in smaller classes with teachers who care about them, and that having positive things to do like sports and recreation is good for them, and that services over a long period of time is better than brief services, but we spend millions trying to prove these and other equally obvious propositions.

These things are generally believed, not because of studies that have been done, but because they make sense and square with the public's own reality and experience. In similar fashion, but on the other end of the political spectrum, the public supports prisons and longer prison sentences because no amount of research will ever shake the idea that they are more safe with criminals locked up than on the streets.

We are getting gamed here and should recognize it. American public policy is based on people's common sense about what is good, fair or valuable, not about the results of research or program evaluation.

Billions of public dollars are spent annually in support of the belief that home ownership is a fundamentally good thing that enhances family strength, pride, and community connectedness, and no one is asking for evidence to support this middle and upper class benefit.

Every day, in both our public and private lives, we act on faith and common sense, without scientific proof. We buy breakfast cereals based on commercials featuring gray haired men in lab coats, cross our fingers, knock on wood, fund Star Wars, and believe that there is a relationship between the federal deficit and the economy. Only when we are speaking about public benefits to poor people do we suddenly, supposedly, become a nation of science-driven decision makers.

In the long run, we might be better off owning up to the fact that the world is an imprecise place and that we cannot fully measure all that goes on. We should speak out for caring, concern and generosity just because people are in need. After all, it can't hurt.

 

Ira CutlerCornerstone Consulting Group. Ira Cutler is a founding partner of the Cornerstone Consulting Group and formerly the Director for Planning and Development at The Annie E. Casey Foundation.