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Reichert Opening Statement: Hearing on What Really Works: Evaluating Current Efforts to Help Families Support their Children and Escape Poverty

July 17, 2013

This is the second in our series of three hearings on welfare reform. In our first hearing, we learned that programs designed to help low-income families often don’t do enough to help recipients go to work and get ahead.

Today, we will explore what we know about the effectiveness of such programs, how we can hold more programs accountable for their performance, and how we can ensure they provide real help so recipients can support their families and move up the economic ladder. Over one-third of American households receive low-income benefits today, and federal spending alone on these programs equals $15,000 per individual below the poverty line each year. Yet few programs can show that they improve outcomes for those in need.

What we will hear today is that, in many cases, these programs are either untested or have not been proven to work. According to program evaluation experts:

“Since 1990, there have been 10 instances in which an entire federal social program has been evaluated using the scientific ‘gold standard’ method of randomly assigning individuals to a program or control group. Nine of the evaluations found weak or no positive effects.”

In another example, a review of 13 rigorous studies on employment and training programs showed three-quarters of them had weak or no positive effects on those they were supposed to be helping. All this comes at a cost; the programs in question continue to spend literally billions of dollars every year without delivering the results promised to those in need.

We know many social programs lack meaningful outcomes. But some programs go further and can even be harmful. For example, “Scared Straight” programs, which I am familiar with as a former Sherriff, organize visits to prisons by juvenile delinquents with the goal of deterring them from future offending. However, instead of reducing crime, these programs actually increase the odds that participants will find themselves in trouble in the future. In fact, a comprehensive review of research by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy estimated that every $1 spent on the program actually creates $76 in additional costs for taxpayers, crime victims, and the participants themselves because the youth who go through these programs are more likely to commit crimes in the future.

This all suggests that more programs, including those in our jurisdiction, should be evaluated to ensure families are receiving real help. Ultimately, Congress and the Administration should fund what works so we can deliver better results to those in need. This is an issue that can, and should, be bipartisan, as it is all about doing right by recipients and taxpayers alike.

Last week, the Obama Administration hosted a full-day conference on funding what works, highlighting how the private sector is willing to work with government to ensure that programs are really making a difference. Especially given our current fiscal climate, it is important to ensure our resources are focused on efforts that have the greatest impact on those in need. I’m proud to say that my home State of Washington is a leader in this regard, as Steve Aos of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy will shortly tell us. We will also hear from experts from Utah and Texas, as well as national leaders about what is being done, and what more can be done, to ensure that these programs are held accountable for producing real results.

I look forward to all of our testimony today.