Why Not A Rational Policymaking Process?

Tom Corbett, Challenges for Human Services columnistby Tom Corbett

The recent passing of an academic icon, Professor Alfred Kahn, has prompted me to consider a simple question for this column: Why can’t we find our way to a more reasoned and rational policy approach to the solution of rural challenges?

Kahn, who died at the age of 90 after a distinguished 57-year career at the Columbia University School of Social Work, spent his academic life trying to bring good research to solving social issues. I knew Professor Kahn well. He served on the Institute for Research on Poverty’s (IRP) National Advisory Committee from 1967 to 2002 while I was an affiliate of IRP (starting in 1975) and served as the IRP Associate Director from 1994 to 2001.

Professor Kahn was not only a superb scholar, but also a man who passionately cared about the well-being of America’s most vulnerable citizens. He was always seeking effective policies and programs, those supported by research evidence, to help address social problems; this is a search addressed at length in a recent book by Karen Bogenschneider and myself titled Evidence-Based Policymaking: Insights from Policy-Minded Researchers and Research-Minded Policymakers.

One of his lasting contributions was to bring a comparative perspective to the understanding of our more vexing social problems. For example, he studied both the condition of poor children and the character of policies aimed at helping them across several so-called rich nations.

A comparative perspective on poverty has never revealed an encouraging storyline for U.S. policies designed to address this issue. In the last years for which cross-country data are available (1999 and 2000), the relative poverty rate in the United States was the highest among the eight western countries included in the study. While the U.S. poverty rate as measured only by market or private earnings (i.e., where no government help is considered) falls in the middle of the pack, public policies in the United States do significantly less to reduce poverty than in peer nations.

In Canada, as an example, the market poverty rate was 24.8 percent and the rate after government help was 12.3 percent; in the United States, the comparable rates were 23.7 percent and 17.0 percent. Policies in Canada reduced poverty in half while social policies aimed at helping the poor seem far less effective here. (See: “The legacy of Alfred Kahn,” Institute for Research on Poverty, Focus, Summer 2010). As I have emphasized in the past, rural children are particularly vulnerable to economic distress.

Given a lingering recession, economic distress is likely to be with us for quite a while, with disproportionate effects for our rural communities. It has long been known that poverty in sparsely populated areas is higher than elsewhere, that the poorest counties are disproportionately rural, and the service infrastructure that can address such problems is underdeveloped.

In earlier columns, I noted that rural communities have fewer fiscal and intellectual resources to bring to the policy table and that transportation issues and higher levels of stigma associated with seeking help hinder the effective delivery of human services. And we have less data on rural communities and fewer analyses that focus on rural issues.

The bottom line is that we have pressing problems as a nation and singular problems in our rural communities. We desperately need rational, evidence-based solutions to these challenges. We need our knowledge-producing community (academics, researchers, policy analysts, etc.) to bring its vast intellectual resources to bear upon sound policies for addressing rural needs.

Yet, our policymaking process is largely fractured along partisan and ideological stress lines. There are, of course, many reasons for our failure to address poverty and other social ills as well as our peer nations. Still, we can and must do a better job. Good government should be based on hard evidence, and research and policy ought to go hand in hand. Unfortunately, there is a gap, one might say chasm, between the production of knowledge and its utilization in the making of public policies.

Although the quantity of research has expanded dramatically in recent decades, its role in shaping policy decisions seldom reaches the level warranted by the magnitude of the investment in science by government and by the philanthropic community, among others. Clearly, there are idiosyncratic reasons for the neglect of rural areas—the media outlets that frame social issues and the research universities that develop policy and programmatic responses are located in urban settings.

But there are deeper reasons why the research community does not do a better job of contributing solutions to our non-urban problems. As Bogenschneider and I found, there is a cultural disconnect between the academic community, where policies are formulated and tested, and the policymaking community (i.e., knowledge-consumers) where decisions are made and help actually delivered.

These two communities see the world quite differently in many ways: communication styles, writing preferences, how problems are identified, which internal rewards are important, who they feel is important in their environments, and so forth. The cultural differences are so extensive and so pervasive that communication between them is strained, when it takes place at all. As a result, academics mostly talk to other academics (or decision makers in Washington, D.C.) while policymakers typically talk to interest groups and lobbyists.

The pursuit of the public good cannot be left solely to the interplay of power and self-interest. We need some set of rules, some new ways of looking at issues and challenges that can elevate our public discourse above the political fray that is too often defined by partisan and political positions. No one denies the reality that evidence and rational analysis cannot be the final determinant of public policy. The human element is critical and unavoidable and conflicts among normative values are unavoidable. At the same time, science as a way of framing questions and thinking through possible solutions should play a much larger role and help us to move beyond the paralysis and gridlock that seizes up our political institutions and prevents us from aggressively dealing with our rural policy challenges.

Perhaps is not too late to realize the vision of Professor Kahn.

Tom Corbett has emeritus status at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is an active affiliate with the Institute for Research on Poverty where he served as Associate Director. He has worked on welfare reform issues at all levels of government and continues to work with a number of states on issues of program and systems integration.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural Health Information Hub.

Professor Corbett welcomes your feedback. Comments and reactions can be sent to: Corbett@ssc.wisc.edu.

Back to: Summer 2010 Issue