Thursday, December 9, 2010

Randomized Trials and Social Assitance

The NY Times has a very interesting article on how New York City is using randomized trials and follow up to discover whether the Homebase program is fulfilling its goal of keeping people out of shelters.  There's a lot of opposition to this, which would make sense if the program had previously approved everyone.  However, this isn't the case.  The program already had a limited budget and had to refuse people.  What's different now is that some good is coming of this, we're becoming more able to assess a program's success which should improve homelessness prevention programs in the future.  I do of course understand the emotional aspect making people angry which happens when there is a change in the programs.  But is it really any better to be denied because of an opaque bureaucratic process than it is to be denied because of a lottery understood beforehand?  When you get past the emotion, that seems to be what the two options are, opaque bureacracy or lottery.  The lottery has the added advantage of being able to assess the program.

We need more of this if we're going to trim government effectively and make government better able to fulfill its goals.  I do need to add a note of caution however.   Since there are many different programs out there to combat homelessness to assess things correctly this has to be done one program at a time.  While I don't think there will be a big rush to do more of these studies, especially when the emotional response is considered, since good government movements sometimes come in waves I feel the need to note in advance that if people are bouncing from program to program getting denied as a result of randomized trials you're just going to mess up the results of all the tests.  I know the bureaucracy understands this, I'm less sure about politicians.

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