What Do We Know about What Makes Programs Fail or Succeed?

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December 11, 2011; Source: AEIdeas (American Enterprise Institute)

Agree or disagree with his ideas, Charles Murray is clearly one of the most influential conservative thinkers of our time. Among his books are Losing Ground (1984), a major work seen as setting some of the debate for what became welfare reform, The Bell Curve (with Richard Herrnstein in 1994), a controversial piece about IQ levels associated with race and class, and most recently, Coming Apart, an analysis of American class structure. As an in-house thinker at the American Enterprise Institute, he also blogs.

His blog on the “3 laws of social programs” returns to themes he outlined in Losing Ground about how social programs can “backfire.” He indicates that the reasons for this aren’t explained by idiosyncratic issues of program management or other factors, but are pretty much immutable explanations of why all social programs, at a minimum, fail to achieve their intended effects and, in many cases, simply fail:

  1. “The Law of Imperfect Selection. Any objective rule that defines eligibility for a social transfer program will irrationally exclude some persons.” His point is that social programs exclude people who might be genuinely needy, and it extends to the idea that programs also include people who really shouldn’t be there.
  2. “The Law of Unintended Rewards. Any social transfer increases the net value of being in the condition that prompted the transfer.” To qualify for the social program, a person must demonstrate that they have the required problem. He points to the practice, cited by Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times, of some poor families withdrawing their kids from literacy classes in order to qualify for a $698 monthly Supplemental Security Income “intellectual disability” payment. In other words, as conservative theorists have long contended, social programs induce undesirable and counterproductive behaviors, such as welfare programs that make it more financially lucrative for women to remain unmarried despite the well known statistics demonstrating that children in two-parent households are much less likely to be poor than children in single-parent families.
  3. “The Law of Net Harm. The less likely it is that the unwanted behavior will change voluntarily, the more likely it is that a program to induce change will cause net harm.” Murray cites an example from Losing Ground: “My favorite chapter of Losing Ground is a thought experiment about a government program that uses financial rewards to reduce smoking. If the rewards are small, nothing will change. If they are large enough to induce a significant number of people to quit smoking, the program will inevitably lead to more people who take up smoking in the first place and the net number of inveterate smokers.”

If, as Murray suggests, these laws of social programs are inexorably true, does that mean that there are no possible corrective measures? Or is the reality that better program design can alter some of the counterproductive impacts of social programs—for example, allowing people receiving TANF aid not to immediately lose all of their benefits if they obtain a paid job? There are a number of examples of researchers digging into social programs to isolate and replicate “what works,” like the foundation-supported What Works Collaborative at the Urban Institute or the lifelong “what works” research of Lisbeth Schorr. Note that these approaches are distinct from the panoply of nonprofit and for-profit consultants and thinktankers who simply promote unending outcomes research camouflaged as a search for programs that really work.

Murray’s three laws are a good reminder to nonprofit organizations and government agencies that we already really know a lot about what makes programs fail and what might make them succeed. We needn’t assume that they are immutably destined to fail, nor fated to succeed.—Rick Cohen

  • Glenn

    I always appreciate ideas that challenge “accepted thinking”. I would go one step further and say that the real cause (or potential cause) for failure of well intentioned programs is due to belief system and values of each individual being served by the program.

    Individuals who end up in circumstances where they need long term, extensive services provided by our social programs did not end up in their situation solely because of the unfortunate events in their life. These individuals end up needing services because they do not have the knowledge, skill, belief system, trust or relationships with others that empower them to take responsibility and action to overcome the unfortunate circumstances.

    This lack of skill development for an ever increasing number of our fellow americans has resulted from the failure of parents, the education system, political leaders, those who provide social services and churches to teach/train/develop/expect the skills for success in each individual.

    “Give a man a fish . . . ” is a statement we all acknowlege and agree with to some degree. Any organization that does not put this into practice EVERY time they help someone should not receive public or private support.

    Not every individual in need of help is willing to embrace this reality, we need to be honest enough to admit and accept that not everyone can be helped.