estimating efficacy

Parke Wilde has a good post on the difficulties of measuring the effectiveness of various food/hunger programs, some of which is interesting but a bit over my head. Apparently Parke witnessed the proposal of a $41 million, 17-year project to research the impact of the food stamp program, and was struck by how they took the mind-blowing price-tag in stride. His conclusion:

There may have been two reasons they liked the report. First, everybody praised the report for laying out the research issues clearly and honestly.

Second, the report may have served a rhetorical purpose in FNS’ dealings with OMB. By publishing the report on the FNS website, they are saying to OMB: “You want a study of the impact of food stamps? Here you go. Let us spend $41 million chasing this one down, and we’ll give you the answer in 17 years. Then, if the results are unfavorable, we can start discussing program cuts at that time.”

It’s a good rhetorical strategy, especially considering the hostility of the Bush administration to social programs, which frequently uses studies like these as fodder for funding cuts. Their strategy is transparent, but successful nonetheless: 1) cut funding to social programs, 2) subsequently declare the program’s now-crippled operation as “ineffective”, and 3) use this ineffectiveness as justification for further cuts. Wash, rinse, repeat. The $41-mil price tag serves both as a necessary reminder of the difficulty in isolating the effects of one program like this from the innumerable other variables, and also as a giant middle-finger to any attempt to use a less-scientific study to rubber-stamp funding cuts.

Parke also disgresses a bit with this, which is worth reading:

When I first read the favorable rating of the Food Stamp Program on OMB’s predecessor to the “Expect More” website a couple years ago, it occurred to me that the political folks in OMB may have been too cowardly to state the obvious: the current food assistance programs are not sufficient to halt the increase of hunger in America. Far from justifying program cuts to the popular Food Stamp Program, the confession of failure implied by an OMB rating of “results not demonstrated” might have convinced the American political establishment to strengthen these programs.

Or worse (from the administration’s perspective), if food stamps were declared officially ineffective, somebody might eventually have asked whether any program that merely distributes food benefits would suffice to stop the rise of hunger in an economic and political environment where increasing wealth for the few and deteriorating welfare for the many are accepted with complacency. Maybe hunger simply follows hopelessness as naturally in real life as it does in the dictionary.