In 1988, Congress funded an effort to help young children from disadvantaged families do better in school. A few years later, the federal government tested the program, called Even Start, to see whether it was working. Researchers found no proof that it was, so President George W. Bush proposed scrapping it.
The case of Even Start stands out because it is so rare. At a time when the federal budget is increasingly squeezed — and lawmakers are wrestling with tough choices on what to cut or to keep — the government does very, very little to find out which programs produce the best results for the money spent on them.
There are several reasons for that, most wrapped up in politics. There’s no natural ideological constituency for program evaluations. Lawmakers who champion social programs often fear that attempts to measure them will be only thinly disguised excuses to kill the programs. Fiscal hawks don’t often love the idea of spending more money on evaluations.