Social Mobility Memos

A Win for Data Wonks in Paul Ryan’s Poverty Plan

Richard V. Reeves and Joanna Venator

Rep. Paul Ryan has generated lots of buzz around his proposals to expand EITC and reform the safety net through block grants, all outlined in his anti-poverty plan “Expanding Opportunity in America.” (Look out for more blogs on these in coming days.) But for those interested in researching social mobility, Rep. Ryan’s most eye-catching ideas come in a short section near the end of the paper, with the unsexy title “Results-Driven Research.”

Ryan is interested in creating a Clearinghouse for Program and Survey Data, which would combine data on government programs with administrative and survey data to allow researchers to evaluate the impact of programs (i.e., take up, duration, benefits received). As a first step, he suggests creating a commission of economics, statisticians, program administrators, and privacy experts to address concerns about:

  • Funding: Ryan suggests implementing user fees for participating research institutions to keep the creation of the Clearinghouse office budget neutral.
  • Longitudinal Data: Ryan highlights the importance of studying intergenerational economic mobility and the need for improved access to and collection of longitudinal data.
  • Implementation: How can we incorporate results-based metrics and institutionalize randomized controlled trials in program design?
  • Privacy: Opening up program and survey data to research requires sensitivity to privacy and assurances that program participants’ and survey respondents’ identities are protected.

Three cheers to Representative Ryan! Getting more and better data is a real issue in terms of understanding trends in the United States. There are some on Ryan’s side of the aisle who have difficulty with the idea of government, and with the idea of data, let alone government data. His move is therefore doubly welcome.

For those of us trying to study economic mobility, having in-depth and long-term data on income, education, and other factors related to opportunity is vitally important – but difficult to come by. Commonly used surveys, such as PSID and NLSY, each have their own limitations. Large-scale research projects, such as The Equality of Opportunity project headed by Raj Chetty and colleagues, have the institutional resources to apply for and get access to administrative data – but for most, gaining access to anonymized social security or tax records is a difficult process under the current system. Ryan’s proposal is a first step towards ensuring that not only Chetty can do Chetty-style research.

A focus on evidence- based policy making (as opposed to its evil twin, policy-based evidence making) is an important goal, one that will allow us to design programs that can best serve our country’s needs. But in order to create evidence-based policies, we need the evidence. Better access to quality government data is a good first step in getting that evidence.