Times are tight. Money is scarce. Taxes are our money. Meanwhile, Massachusetts is about to spend another $16 million on anti-violence and job placement programs for youth. So one important question should be: How do we know we are going to get a return on our investment?
I've read stories that Massachusetts is going to spend $10 million on one set of programs aimed at reducing youth violence in specific areas of Boston, and $6 million on another set of programs designed to put kids to work this summer. I support such initiatives and think they are worthy and important.
However, support doesn't mean we give a blank pass to the administration of these programs. We all want to know: do they work? And if they do, are they cost-effective?
I've written about this issue several times. So, in keeping the campaign moving, let's examine what we should expect and ask of our elected officials on this issue.
The first state plan includes spending $10 million in public and private funds to support anti-violence programs.
Additionally, there is supposed to be new legislation that toughens gun laws. The $10 million is supposed to be used to expand on existing programs. But what evidence is there that these existing programs currently work? If they are "evidence-based" programs, what is the evidence that they actually work here in Massachusetts? Furthermore, if we spend another $10 million, what kind of reduction in crime rates should we expect and how do we know it can be attributed to the expanded programs?
These are the questions that our lawmakers should be asking. And the parties answering these questions, if they know what they are doing, should be excited to fully and descriptively answer these questions with plans that will satisfy professionals in government performance measurement (like me). Programs can and should be properly measured for outcomes, but it isn't easy and it requires specific planning.
On the issue of more or tougher gun laws. Criminals don't follow the law. More laws might be necessary to close a loophole but legislation isn't sufficient. While the details are beyond what can be covered here, research shows that specific policing strategies are perhaps the single best way to reduce gun homicide and gun-carrying behavior. Since certainty of punishment is more important than severity and even the celerity of punishment, increasing the chances of being apprehended is more important than tougher, stricter laws. It doesn't matter how tough the law is to the person who doesn't think he is going to get caught.
Moving on, the $6 million in funding for "youth job programs" this summer is geared toward creating 3,000 jobs. Fifteen percent of the jobs will be targeted at youth at-risk of delinquency.
Who can argue this is a bad idea? Busy youth stay out of trouble more than bored youth.
But who is to say that this money is going to be spent on kids who need help? Fifteen percent of this is going to at-risk kids, which means 85 percent is going to youth who are not at-risk. If they are not at risk, why spend money on them?
I know how the research says that work as a teenager increases the odds of work as an adult, but the research also shows that programs should be directed towards the neediest populations, not the ones who will slip by without support.
With this in mind, who is doing what to make sure that this money is going to be spent on the neediest populations? And moreover, who is making sure that we have performance measures that will show that not only are we spending money efficiently, but we are spending it effectively? Just because we spend money, it doesn't mean it is money well spent, no matter how good the intentions.
These questions speak to planning in advance.
What is the goal of the program? Who are we trying to help and what are we trying to help them do? Most importantly, how do we know we are achieving our goals? Is the right data going to be collected from the beginning so we can know at some point if this money was well spent and these programs "worked" however "worked" is defined? As boring and mundane as statistics and properly researching program effectiveness is, it is what we need to tell us money is well spent.
My point is that programs often work, and I support these new initiatives. But there are many programs that haven't worked despite the best intentions. And like every other Massachusetts taxpayer, I want to know that these programs are going to be producing the returns they are intended to produce. If we don't ask for this level and type of accountability, history tells us we won't get it.
PAUL HEROUX of Attleboro can be reached at Paul_Heroux@hks11.harvard.edu.