The Federal Experiment with Evidence-Based Funding: Lessons from the Home Visiting Program

Source: Philip G. Peters Jr., University of Missouri at Columbia – School of Law, Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2014-22, July 31, 2014

From the abstract:
Congress spends billions of dollars each year on social programs that don’t work. To cure this, both Congress and the current Administration have turned to small competitive funding programs, like the Investing in Innovation program, to find and fund programs with the strongest evidence of impact. Yet, the largest federal programs are formula-based, not competitive. They distribute over $300 billion annually using formulas based on factors like population and poverty. This Article explores whether formula-based programs can also be designed to restrict funding to interventions that are genuinely evidence-based.

The challenge of directing money to proven service models is more daunting for formula funding than for competitive programs because the government must set minimum eligibility thresholds in advance of funding. It cannot wait to see which proposals are the strongest. Nuanced multi-factor evaluation at the end of the grant process must be replaced with clear, demanding, and yet realistic minimum standards at the front end.

To examine the feasibility of this project, this Article examines the first major evidence-based and formula-funded program enacted by Congress — the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. I conclude that Congress can indeed create a formula-based allocation process that restricts funding to genuinely proven programs, but that doing so will require more demanding proof standards than those imposed by the Home Visiting Program. I then offer a roadmap for revising the Program and for enacting a second generation of evidence-based programs that are much more likely to substantially improve the lives of America’s children and families.