That’s the name of this website – Social Programs That Work – run by the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy. As they say, “U.S. social programs are often implemented with little regard to rigorous evidence, costing billions of dollars yet failing to address critical needs of our society — in areas such as education, crime and substance abuse, and poverty reduction. A key piece of the solution, we believe, is to provide policymakers and practitioners with clear, actionable information on what works, as demonstrated in scientifically-valid studies, that they can use to improve the lives of the people they serve.”
Thus, the site reports on “well-designed randomized controlled trials” across a range of important social issues. They also set out the criteria that they used for considering whether a study is worthy of inclusion on their site (they say only 40-50 studies meet these criteria). Partcularly important is their focus on outcomes:
-Reporting of the intervention’s effects on all outcomes that the study measured, not just those for which there are positive effects.
-For each claim of a positive effect, a reporting of (i) the size of the effect, and whether it is of policy or practical importance; and (ii) tests showing that the effect is statistically significant (i.e., unlikely to be due to chance). These tests should take into account key features of the study design, such as whether individuals or groups were randomized.
-If possible, corroboration of reported effects in more than one implementation site and/or population.
The site provides detail on each study by its theme. So in education, one example is SMART – Start Making a Reader Today; for crime there is Multisystemic Therapy for Juvenile Offenders; in substance abuse DARE – Drug Abuse Resistance Education is shown to be ineffective despite the program’s popularity. On the employment/welfare side there is Riverside’s Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN), showing a “sizable increase in employment rates and job earnings, reduction in welfare dependency, and savings to the government, especially for single parents.”
I definitely support this sort of research, given the insight it provides into what works and what doesn’t. So it’s great to find a site gathering this information together. However, as an anthropologist, I might also add some caveats. First, there is an almost exclusive US focus, and what works here doesn’t necessarily work elsewhere. Second, the focus is on techniques and outcomes, and not on context, relationships, resources and other things that can also make an enormous social difference. Third, this sort of research is about the workings of specific programs, and not radical change – these programs don’t address the root causes of social inequality or the ideologies that support some in favor of others.
Finally, outcome studies are no substitute for creative thinking, program development, and innovative work. These are still very much needed, so for some ideas there, see some previous posts on Cellphones Save the World; CeaseFire: Violence Prevention and Why Gary Slutkin Is An Anthropologist and Successful Weight Loss.