Moynihan Lecture: Follow the Evidence, Not the Ideology

Moynihan from 1965
A young Daniel Patrick Moynihan discusses his landmark report on African American families in 1965,
Since 2001, Isabel “Bel” Sawhill and Ron Haskins have been working together on issues of poverty and family in the United States. Their collaboration has been fruitful, and perhaps most surprisingly in their base of Washington, D.C., bipartisan.

As Richard V. Reeves, their colleague at the Brookings Institution, put it, “Bel and Ron have forged a unique and powerful intellectual partnership at Brookings, founding and then elevating the Center on Children and Families and producing world-class work on families, poverty, opportunity, evidence, parenting, work, education, and plenty more besides.”

AAPSSReeves acknowledged that much has been made of their bipartisanship – Haskins, a former Marine who served as a staffer to Republicans in the House of Representatives, Sawhill, a former associate director at the Office of Management and Budget for President Clinton – and congratulated their clear-eyed ability to craft policy recommendations out of evidence, not ideology. They have, he said, a “willingness to adapt their views to the facts, and not the other way around, which has become so common, particularly in this town.”

Reeves made those remarks on May 12 as Haskins and Sawhill delivered the annual Moynihan Lecture for the American Academy of Political and Social Science. The pair was the first-ever joint winners of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize, which honors a leading policy-maker, scientist, or public intellectual whose career used social science evidence to advance the public good. The prize, awarded in the past to luminaries like Alice Rivlin, Joseph Stiglitz and William Julius Wilson,  is named for the late New York sociologist and senator who was the beau ideal of what the prize winner should be.

In their respective talks (which you view below), Sawhill and Haskins drew inspiration from different facets of Moynihan’s 1964 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” That landmark document prepared for President Lyndon Johnson shook up both the policy and academic worlds, and established an unheralded Harvard professor serving as assistant secretary of labor as a national figure.

Sawhill’s lecture echoed the original Moynihan report’s critical examination of the American family and what’s been happening to it; her focus extended to white families, too.

Titling her lecture after her 2014 book, Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage, Sawhill detailed “how much marriage is in retreat” since Moynihan’s day. Some 40 percent of children are born outside of marriage, a fraction that rises to half of all babies born to women under 30.

This isn’t automatically a bad thing, she stated, explaining that a leading reason for the shift is the improving status of women, who are no longer as tied to marriage for economic reasons. She also noted that the language stigmatizing single parenthood — illegitimate child, living in sin, loose woman – had softened.  And yet, Sawhill continued, marriage should remain a preferred outcome for families with children, since children not raised in married families often don’t do as well “on a lot of outcomes” as their counterparts, with increases in child poverty, inequality and social mobility more common among the unmarried.

Haskins, in turn, focused on Moynihan’s use of evidence to back up his conclusions. Calling Moynihan “the greatest politician among social scientists in the nation’s history, as well as the greatest social scientists among politicians in the nation’s history,” Haskins explained that the Moynihan report included a careful analysis of available evidence. He added that its conclusions have been substantially confirmed by subsequent social science studies, including a number published in a 2009 issue of the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

This focus on marshaling evidence prefigured the explosion in today’s evidence-based policy making, a trend Haskins suggested is coming none too soon. In offering his own 13-point Foundations of Evidence-Based Policy, Haskins invoked Peter Rossi’s Iron Law of Program Evaluation, which states, “The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero.” Moynihan, he added, frequently cited Rossi’s law to prod federal officials enamored of this program or that.

Haskins, however, didn’t come to praise Rossi’s law, but revoke it. “One of the prime motivating factors of the current evidence-based movement,” he said, “is the understanding, now widespread, that most social programs have not been well evaluated—or they don’t work. Perhaps the most essential function of social science is to find and test programs that will reduce the nation’s social problems.” He continued, saying that while the random assignment study is a foundation of social science research, yet the U.S. Congress is a long way from insisting on these as a “major component” of funding decisions on social programs.

Haskins and Sawhill’s most recent books are concerned with the ways in which evidence can be mustered in support of sound family policy. Haskins’s Show Me the Evidence, for instance, is a history of the Obama administration’s attempt to improve social policy through evidence-based initiatives. Sawhill and Haskins jointly serve as editors of The Future of Children, a journal on policy issues that affect children and families, and they co-direct the Budgeting for National Priorities project at Brookings.  Haskins is current president—and Sawhill a past president—of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management.

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