No Proof Trump-Targeted Programs Work?

April 6, 2017

Congress set in motion a sensible response to the incessant claims from the right that anti-poverty programs don’t work.

It passed a bill that creates an expert commission to review federal program data and make recommendations for using it to support program evaluations and improvements based on results.

Now we’ve got justifications for Trump’s budget that fly in its face — specifically that certain programs that serve low-income people’s needs should cease to exist right now because we don’t have enough proof they work.

The Community Development Block Grant would end because it’s “not well targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results.”

Communities use CDBG funds to meet various needs. That’s what a flexible block grant is supposed let them do. Some unknown number support Meals on Wheels. They collectively supplied prepared meals for more than 2.4 million homebound seniors last year.

The OMB Director says that Meals on Wheels “sounds great,” but we can’t keep giving states money for “programs that don’t work.”

We do, in fact, have some research showing Meals on Wheels does—probably behind his ken. In any event, he brushes off the lost benefits by donning the mantle of fiscal responsibility.

The Trump budget would also zero-fund grants to local Community Learning Centers, which channel them to afterschool programs, especially in high-poverty, low-performing schools.

The director says more or less the same about them. “There’s no demonstrable evidence that they’re .. helping kids do better in school.” Again, we’ve got some evidence they do, though limited. Not, one infers, demonstrable enough to make the administration even pause.

The budget would also eliminate the Low Income Home Heating and Energy Assistance Program because it’s among the “lower-impact” programs and “unable to demonstrate strong performance outcomes.”

Now, we truly don’t want to fund programs that have no positive or only minimal effects. On the other hand, measuring a program’s effects by the so-called gold standard, i.e., a multi-year comparison of impacts on those who received benefits or services and a control group that didn’t, is a costly business — and still not conclusive.

One need only look at the gold-standard Head Start impact studies. The second, which tracked recent participants through the third grade found that gains didn’t last.

But when research teams at the Brookings Institution and UCLA looked instead at the long term, they found that the children fared better in significant ways

The real issue here, however, is what evidentiary standard a program has to meet for it to be considered funding-worthy.

Consider LIHEAP. It’s done less than it might for quite awhile because it’s been under-funded — and increasingly so. Its appropriations were small, even before the Budget Control Act capped spending on non-defense programs — just $5.1 billion in 2010. Less ever since.

At the same time, home heating costs have increased, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. So states, which get shares of the funding as block grant, have had to cut back on the number of low-income households whose home energy costs they subsidize and by how much.

The program nevertheless keeps the heat on for nearly 6.1 million poor households. Seventy percent are especially vulnerable, the National Energy Assistance Directors Association states, protesting what Trump intends.

Now, common sense tells us that that having heat in the winter averts new or aggravated illnesses due directly to the cold — even death, since roughly a quarter of LIHEAP households include a member who uses electrically-powered.medical equipment.

Bills paid for electricity also prevent injuries, since rooms can be lighted at night and food poisoning by keeping refrigerators running and stoves operating. (This last would be true of natural gas as well, of course.)

Whatever the energy source, the assistance LIHEAP provides can prevent homelessness and other hardships, e.g., food insecurity, because low-income households otherwise have to spend far more on home energy than the less cash-strapped—16%, as compared to 4%, according to findings when energy costs were lower.

Do we really need to find out what happened to another similar group of people who had their utilities cut off and couldn’t scrape up the money to get them turned back on?

It would be bad enough if the Trump administration were holding programs to an unreasonable standard — or merely ignorant of research-based evidence that they work.

But when it says it won’t fund programs without proof of that, it’s putting a self-serving, deceptive gloss on decisions made to cut spending on safety net and other non-defense programs.

How do we know? Well, Trump is bound and determined to fund private school vouchers. Do we have evidence of their outcomes? We do, to some extent, each focused exclusively on one state’s voucher program, plus the District of Columbia’s.

The earliest two found positive effects, e.g. higher graduation rates and, in the District, higher reading, but not math scores.

On the other hand, three of the four most recent, including one financed by a pro-voucher institute found that children in voucher programs scored lower in both reading and math than children in public schools. The fourth found no effect, as measured by graduates going on to college.

A foolish consistency isn’t always the hobgoblin of little minds. In this case, it’s minds of greater capacity engaging in inconsistency to justify their policy preferences — hoping futilely that no one will challenge their alternative facts.