March 31, 2017Op-ed

Politico: The Trump administration’s misleading embrace of ‘evidence’

by Robert Gordon and Ron Haskins

Federal/ Economic/ 2017/

When Trump Budget Director Mick Mulvaney stepped out to defend the Trump budget’s $52 billion in domestic spending cuts, he used the language of evidence. The $3 billion flexible grant for community development was “just not showing any results.” The $2 billion federal program to fund afterschool lacked “demonstrable evidence.” Both were slated for elimination.

Critics responded by disputing the facts. They showed that one popular program funded with community development dollars, Meals on Wheels, does have good evidence of improving seniors’ health.

But there is one sense in which Mulvaney was right: there are no rigorous evaluations showing that the two large programs he attacked make a positive impact on their recipients.

Does that justify the cuts? Not even close. In fact, by invoking “evidence” in selective attacks on two among dozens of programs his budget would eviscerate, Mulvaney misses what matters most about how policymaking works – not just evidence-based policymaking, but policy leadership in general.

The two of us have worked for years from both sides of the political aisle to advance the cause of evidence-based policy: rigorously evaluating whether programs work, then using those results to improve programs, to expand them, or when necessary, to cut them off. The most rigorous forms of evaluation, randomized controlled trials, have proved themselves as the cornerstone of American medical research, and today they play an increasing role in evaluating the effectiveness of government programs and changing policies based on the results.