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Opinion

Are federal social programs working? No one knows.

Most federal social programs have never been evaluated for true effectiveness. The good news is that they are ideally situated for just such study.

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Today, Head Start has a $7 billion budget and legions of invested stakeholders. But it's not working for the kids and it's awfully expensive. Even liberal Time magazine columnist Joe Klein, commenting on Head Start, recently wrote, "[W]e need world-class education programs, from infancy on up. But we can no longer afford to be sloppy about dispensing cash.... "

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It's past time for lawmakers to figure out just how well the programs Congress funds are working. As a first step, every time it authorizes or reauthorizes a social program, Congress should specifically mandate that the program undergo a rigorous experimental evaluation.

This is imminently doable. When Congress creates social programs, the funded activities spread out across the nation. The stage is set for a large-scale, multisite evaluation.

Unfortunately, mandating evaluations isn't the same as getting them done. Federal agencies fearful of losing funding for pet programs are expert dawdlers when it comes to performing hard-nosed evaluations.

In 1998, Congress passed the Workforce Investment Act, which authorized the Labor Department's major job-training programs. Given the past failure of these programs, Congress stipulated that the department had to complete a large-scale, multisite evaluation of its job-training efforts by September 2005.

Labor promptly procrastinated. It didn’t even award a contract for the evaluation until June 2008. According to the US Government Accountability Office, the evaluation will not be completed until June 2015 – nearly a decade past the original due date.

The second step, then, is meaningful congressional oversight – and consequences. Lawmakers must be diligent in ensuring that reluctant agencies carry out any and all congressionally required program evaluations. Funding should hinge on their compliance.

Congress is morally obligated to spend taxpayer dollars effectively. Experimental evaluations are the only way to determine to a high degree of certainty the effectiveness of the government's social programs.

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David Muhlhausen is a research fellow in empirical policy analysis at the Heritage Foundation.

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