Despite bipartisan attempts to base federal funding of social programs on evidence of success, Washington is still a town that runs in large part on ideology. Recent Congressional action provides a striking example of this unfortunate tendency. Last Wednesday, a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee considered the Labor, HHS, and Education appropriations bill. In the process, Republicans terminated the Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) program. Many children’s advocates and others expected the Senate to reverse the House’s cut and retain full funding for the TPP program, but on Tuesday a Senate subcommittee cut the program by 80 percent.
There is no area of social policy in which the nation has made more progress than in reducing teen pregnancy. Teen pregnancy rates have declined every year except two since 1991; over that period the rate has declined more than 50 percent, saving billions of dollars in taxpayer spending and improving other serious problems including school failure and poverty. But there is much room for improvement. Despite the reduction in teen births, the U.S. still has the highest teen pregnancy rate among nations with advanced economies. Moreover, teen childbearing still costs taxpayers at least $9 billion a year.
The TPP program is a prime example of evidence-based policy making. Most of the money from its annual budget of around $100 million must be spent on projects that are implementing a model program that has been shown by at least one rigorous study to produce at a favorable impact on a sexual behavior or a reproductive health outcome. More than 100 projects around the nation are now being conducted with this money, serving more than 140,000 adolescents every year. In addition, the Department of Health and Humans services is conducting what is undoubtedly the most sweeping evaluation ever conducted of teen pregnancy prevention programs to make sure they are sustaining their impacts and maximizing the amount we can learn about how to conduct successful prevention programs.
Hal Rogers (R, KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, issued a statement congratulating his subcommittee for their Labor, HHS, and Education bill because it supported “proven and effective programs” and targeted cuts on “nonessential or inefficient programs.” Maybe someone forgot to tell Chairman Rogers that the subcommittee had cut one of the most evidence-based social programs supported by federal funds. They also forgot to tell him that the subcommittee cut a program that was good for young women, good for children, good for federal and state budgets, and good for the nation.
Why would Republicans take an action like this? Perhaps the program is too closely associated with President Obama whose administration invested a huge effort in getting the program funded and building it up to be one of the best examples of spending on social programs that are shown to produce impacts by scientifically rigorous studies. Or perhaps Republicans, based on their belief that abstinence programs are superior to programs that include education about birth control, were driven by their ideological premises to kill the highly effective TPP program. After all, the same bill actually increased funding for abstinence-only programs which have shown mixed success in reducing sexual activity or reducing teen pregnancy.
The Appropriations bills supported by the House and Senate seem unlikely to pass in their current form. Let us hope that Republican opposition to the TPP program is an opening gambit and will be reversed later in the appropriations process. Given the status of the federal debt, in 2015 and for many years in the future Congress will be tying itself in knots to control spending. Some domestic programs will have to be cut. But Congress and the president should establish the precedent of cutting programs that are ineffective and preserving or even increasing the funding of programs that meet a high standard of supporting evidence. Not only does the TPP program meet this standard, it also actually saves money in federal and state budgets. Don’t cut TPP.