A bipartisan approach to poverty

There remains a great divide between the two parties on how to address the problem of poverty. The stark contrasts were highlighted in conflicting views expressed about the recently released poverty recommendations from Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis Ryan Retirees should say 'no thanks' to Romney's Social Security plan California Governor Newsom and family dress as 2020 Democrats for Halloween DC's liaison to rock 'n' roll MORE's poverty task force. It might seem there is little hope in bridging this divide, but we would argue differently. We are convinced that our nation can make significant progress in addressing the problem of poverty if the trend toward using behavioral science to guide policymaking reaches its full potential.

Behavioral science has brought renewed attention to the problem of poverty from policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Research shows that poverty is a significant influence on virtually every common and costly psychological and behavioral problem. Poverty puts far too many children on a life course in which they fail to develop the cognitive, verbal, and social skills they need to succeed. As a result, they develop problems such as drug abuse, academic failure, school dropout, depression, and antisocial behavior. But that is not all; children raised in poverty have a higher likelihood of dying at an early age due to inflammatory processes that begin in childhood. This effect is seen even among children who have escaped from poverty as adults. As a nation we can no longer look at poverty as simply an unfortunate reality for poor people. It is unfortunate for us as a nation.

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Most recent policy proposals focus on increasing family economic security. This is obviously essential. But many children who have been living in poverty remain at risk for psychological and behavioral problems, such as academic failure, aggressive social behavior, and substance abuse, all of which make continued poverty likely. But one branch of the behavioral sciences--prevention science--has shown how to end these problems.

The research was summarized in the Institute of Medicine report on prevention, published in 2009, which concluded, “The scientific foundation has been created for the nation to begin to create a society in which young people arrive at adulthood with the skills, interests, assets, and health habits needed to live healthy, happy, and productive lives in caring relationships with others.”

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy analyzed the cost savings resulting from numerous preventive interventions and found that most provide substantial return on investment. For example, the Good Behavior Game, a simple way to teach elementary school students how to work cooperatively, returned more than $31 for every dollar invested, thanks to the prevention of substance use, crime, depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts and to the increased rate of high school graduation.

The success of rigorous evaluation efforts in identifying effective interventions has also spawned a movement within government to experimentally evaluate programs, rather than just assume they work. There are numerous examples of this movement. The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking came about through the bipartisan efforts of Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurraySenators press FDA tobacco chief on status of vaping ban Retirement bill blocked in Senate amid fight over amendments Senate Democrats call on White House to abandon plan to collect DNA from migrants MORE. The Obama Administration has directed federal agencies to increase their use of empirical evidence in government. The Social Impact Partnership Act has gained bipartisan support for its evidence-based requirements. Social impact bonds will provide federal reimbursement for programs that private and state funding show are truly working. The Every Student Succeeds Act incorporates evidence-based prevention measures, as do a few bills pending on juvenile or criminal justice. Finally, one theme in the recent Republican proposal on reducing poverty should bring support from Democrats. It calls for increased empirical evaluation by states to determine if whatever policies they put in place are actually working.

The advent of scientifically guided policymaking brings a new level of accountability to government. As it takes hold, we will be wasting less public money on programs that don't work and will be funding programs that make a difference. Shifting funding from programs that don’t work to those that are shown to work can improve wellbeing without costing more. And preventing problems rather before they develop will reduce expenditures on costly treatment and incarceration.

A distinctive feature of science is its incremental accumulation of knowledge. Behavioral science is much newer than physical and biological sciences. But its progress over the past 50 years shows that if governments make increasing use of this science, we can accumulate increasingly effective ways to ensure that young people develop the skills, attitudes, behavior, and values they need to lead productive lives in caring relationships with others. 


Anthony Biglan PhD is a member of the Board and the Executive Committee of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives and a Senior Scientist at Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, Ore. Neil Wollman PhD is Co-Director of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives and Senior Fellow at Bentley Service-Learning Center, Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. Diana H. Fishbein PhD is Co-Director of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives. She is the C. Eugene Bennett Chair in Prevention Research at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at The Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pa. The authors have no financial or lobbying relations with the subjects raised in this essay.