Welfare Research and Evaluation Conference

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Washington, D.C.

16th Annual Welfare Research and Evaluation Conference

One of the cornerstones of research is the transfer of knowledge.

“The trouble with facts is that there are so many of them.”
  - Samuel McChord Crothers

Over the next two days, we will learn from you-- and you from us--what is happening in the fields of Welfare Research and Evaluation.

And though to the outside world that may not sound like the sexiest of research topics, I can assure there are few as vital to improving the lives of so many striving for a better life.

President Obama talks about Ladders of Opportunity. And that’s what we provide to individuals and families on the programmatic side.

But those ladders must be sturdy, they must withstand scrutiny, and most importantly they must achieve their stated purpose to provide that all important pathway to the middle class and economic self-sufficiency.

Metaphorically, I really like the concept of ladders. It is visual, it is dynamic and it is aspirational.

When we look at each of those rungs, we begin to understand that providing people with useful, and truly uplifting tools we need to plan, design, implement and evaluate our programs carefully.  

Doing that requires a great deal of research and evaluation. The twin pillars of policy and program improvement.

“Google' is not a synonym for 'research'.”
― Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol

I am constantly amazed at the commitment and passion that researchers bring to their jobs; that you bring to your job.

Whether in a laboratory setting, a clinical setting, a research library or your office, research and evaluation can be tedious. There are few breakthroughs, few truly “A-ha! or Eureka moments.

It takes dedication and discipline to compile and analyze mountains of data.

Your presence here today is a telltale sign that you are both dedicated and disciplined.

Many of you are already widely published and recognized experts in your fields. Many more of you soon will be.

I want to take a moment personal privilege to recognize one of my favorite researchers: Dr. Naomi Goldstein.

It was a great pleasure for me recently during a senior staff meeting to present Naomi with her pin and framed certificate for being awarded the 2012 Presidential Rank of Distinguished Executive.

Naomi is a remarkable woman. She was recognized for her leadership, commitment to our mission and dedication to professionalism.

Specifically, Naomi was selected for ensuring the work of OPRE would be Rigorous, Relevant, Rewarding and not wrapped in Red Tape.

What she calls the Four Rs.

Focusing on these goals, she has compiled a record of exceptional accomplishments.

During Naomi’s tenure with ACF, she has continuously raised the level of excellence and rigor in the work she oversees.

She increased policy relevance through improved collaboration with ACF program offices and other partners.

She fostered staff creativity and continuous learning, and she increased efficiency through streamlined procedures and systems.

As a result, her office is widely recognized as a leader in bringing sound evidence to bear on decision-making in the federal government.

No small accomplishment. 

“If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.”
  - Isaac Asimov

I want to take a moment to talk about some of that research that the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation oversees and what we’ve learned over the years.

Through rigorous evaluation of a demonstration project in Nebraska several years ago, we learned how family self-sufficiency services delivered by home visitors could improve the earnings of very disadvantaged individuals who had low attachment to the labor force.

Story about the Kitchen of Champions in the Bay Area of San Francisco:

This is a training program to give people culinary skills so that they can work in good restaurants.

Story: A young woman named Casey who used to eat at the food bank when she was a kid, came in for a meal once and saw the people in white coats and asked about the program.

She started taking the classes and ended up going on to college, getting her bachelor’s in food technology.

Five students got up and told their stories. One young woman was a mother of five who wanted to set a different example for her kids.

Two men had just served time in prison and wanted to stay straight.

One man worked construction for years and all the construction work had dried up.

The chef who is running the program used to be a teacher at a local high school. The students had a lot of affection and respect for him.

In the years following the implementation of TANF, we devoted substantial study to understanding better how people can retain and advance in employment. 

The two programs studied targeted employed individuals – employed TANF recipients in Chicago that steered people to openings in higher-paying jobs and employed TANF leavers in Riverside, California, that offered a range of services.

Positive economic impacts in both programs were driven, in part, by increases in the proportion of people who obtained a new job. 

This suggests the advantage of employment retention over specific job retention, which has become an important distinction in how we create new, meaningful opportunities for TANF participants.

We continue to study the barriers of individuals who have substantial employment difficulties.

Through a rigorous evaluation of a transitional jobs program in New York City for men leaving prison, we learned that it is possible to significantly reduce recidivism among individuals who began the jobs program shortly after release from prison, the group that the program was designed to serve. 

This group was less likely to be arrested, convicted of a new crime, or be re-incarcerated compared to the control group.

The take away here is that careful, rigorous study leads to critical, detailed knowledge that cannot be learned otherwise.

So it is, day after day, year after year. We peel back those layers one at time to learn more about how best to create meaningful programming.

Research into social services programming is a hard slog.

Believe me, and I think you would all agree, I would much prefer for one of you to emerge from your study one morning and proclaim that you discovered the solution to how we eradicate poverty.

That you found the answer to any of the intractable issues we grapple with every day.

You toil on knowing that such a discovery is highly unlikely, but that your work is crucial to the work we do at the Administration for Children and Families.

Your work drives and informs quite literally everything we do on behalf of struggling families.

As researcher Richard Atlick said, “A scholar must not only be capable of hard, often totally result-less work--he or she must actually relish it.”

So you don’t think that I am a pessimist, I want to also offer this quote from Nobel Peace Prize winner and Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler:

“Optimism is essential to achievement and it is also the foundation of courage and true progress.”

America’s most vulnerable children and families are depending on your courageous optimism.

Thank you.

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