by Claire Mancuso
Last spring, I walked into Emily Mann’s office hours to ask for feedback on a policy brief I was writing for Intro to Social Policy, but also to get some feedback on life. At the time, I was also taking her Research Methods course for Human Services, which explored the ways students interested in working within the social sector can leverage research and program evaluation to optimize social programs and policies. I already knew that my interests were leading me away from a career in direct service, but I still cared deeply about making the nonprofit sector a more efficient and effective place. But how could your average agency delivering social services, probably understaffed and strapped for cash and trying to serve as many people as possible, pay for expensive program evaluations to determine whether the program was driving impact? Beyond that, how could we make sure policymakers see the results of your evaluation, and how could we convince them to use more evidence in the creation of public policy that works help people in poverty?
Professor Mann directed me towards a research organization operating out of MIT called the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, or J-PAL, headed by esteemed development economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee. The mission of J-PAL is to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. J-PAL works to achieve their mission through three verticals: research, policy outreach, and training. J-PAL’s network of affiliated professors partners with government agencies, nonprofits, and NGOs all over the world to run randomized evaluations of anti-poverty programs, and then works to make sure policymakers see the results from those evaluations so that policy can be informed by evidence.
J-PAL is a unique organization because they only run randomized control trials, meaning that beneficiaries of social programs are randomly assigned into treatment (receiving the intervention) and control groups, much like clinical trials used to test the effects of new drugs. Because of randomization, researchers can be more confident that they are getting an apples-to-apples comparison between treatment and control groups, which means they are able to determine causality–whether or not the program itself was driving outcomes for beneficiaries, or if other factors were at play. But what about those small social service agencies I was talking about? Some organizations don’t yet have the capacity to run a randomized evaluation, and in certain situations, randomization is not possible or ethical. Beyond being a generator of research and disseminator of evidence, J-PAL works as a capacity building organization that offers technical assistance and training to government agencies and other social service providers who are interested in evaluation, randomized or otherwise.
As a Northeastern coop, I got to work on both the research and policy arms of J-PAL North America, and concluded my coop in December with a site visit to South Carolina, where I meet with nurse home-visitors participating in an evaluation of the Nurse Family Partnership, or NFP. NFP seeks to improve child welfare outcomes by targeting first time, low-income mothers. Mothers are matched with a registered nurse, who visits them in their homes throughout pregnancy up until their child’s second birthday. On these visits, nurses provide women with information and counseling about everything from how to baby-proof their homes, to intimate partner violence, to introducing solids into their child’s diet. All women in the study, for both treatment and control groups, are enrolled in Medicaid. Visiting 5 regional offices during our trip, I got to see how the work J-PAL North America does in Cambridge impacts underserved women in rural South Carolina. By completing my first coop in at J-PAL North America, I got to see how researchers, public servants, and nonprofit workers come together to improve the lives of the nation’s poor people to advocate for policy that is backed by scientific evidence–not ideology or anecdote. In times such as these, when science and evidence-based approaches to public policy seem to be directly under fire by individuals in the highest levels of American government, my time as J-PAL instilled in me a resolve to defend the importance of rigorous evidence as central to antipoverty programs and social policy.