Issue Focus

Five MDRC Commentaries on Using Evidence to Respond to the Pandemic


In 2020, MDRC published nearly 40 pieces on the COVID-19 crisis, including profiles of innovative programs, policy options for recovery, and tips and strategies for practitioners. In addition, MDRC staff authored or coauthored the following commentaries, which appeared in other venues, on how evidence can help policymakers and practitioners respond to the pandemic:

“Strategies for Promoting College Completion in the Age of COVID-19,” by MDRC’s Alexander Mayer and Alyssa Ratledge, Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, July 15.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has already exacerbated inequities in higher education. Educators fear that the pandemic and ensuing recession will make it impossible for many students to start, or to continue, their college education this fall…Fortunately, however, we do have a lot of research evidence on ‘what works’ in higher education that can illuminate better ways of supporting students, especially low-income students, during the pandemic and through to graduation day.”

“3 Ways to Get Benefits to the Families that Need Them,” by Anthony Barrows, ideas 42, and Rekha Balu & Rebecca Schwartz, MDRC Center for Applied Behavioral Science, Governing, July 30.

“Why don’t government social services programs better serve families struggling through crises like the COVID-19 pandemic? One reason is that these systems are designed for compliance over access. Many of those who are in need and qualify are deterred by high administrative burdens, including excessive steps and paperwork. In a time of crisis, behavioral science offers insights into how to reduce the paperwork and other administrative burdens that prevent people from taking advantage of crucial support services.”

“There’s No Need to Choose Between Taking Action and Building Evidence,” by MDRC’s Dan Bloom, Government Executive, September 1.

“Activists and reformers argue that large-scale action is needed now. No more blue-ribbon panels of esteemed academics or small pilot programs. And they are right. But, like the critical care physicians, the advocates must be humble enough to admit that we don’t yet know the most effective cures for the illnesses from which our society suffers. Often, policies that seem like obvious solutions produce unintended consequences and don’t end up helping the people they are designed to help. The answer is not to wait. Yes, let’s move forward with bold reforms. But let’s study them carefully at the same time….” 

“Building Economic Mobility and Reducing Inequality: Start with the Evidence,” by MDRC President Virginia Knox, Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, November 18.

“The pandemic of 2020 has reignited a national conversation about inequality, having laid bare the chasm in health and well-being that groups of different racial, ethnic, geographic, or economic backgrounds experience over their lives. When COVID-19 subsides, policymakers in the Biden-Harris administration and members of the new Congress will be faced with decisions about the high levels of inequality and low levels of mobility into the middle class that make it hard for people to attain their ambitions and, in doing so, threaten the economy and our political and social fabric. The good news is that public and philanthropic investments have built a foundation of evidence that can inform each stage of the decision process.”

How Behavioral Science Can Help Future-Proof State and Local Government,” by Michael Hallsworth & Brianna Smrke, BIT North America, and Rekha Balu & Rebecca Schwartz MDRC Center for Applied Behavioral Science, Route Fifty, December 1.

“While the last few months have seen great innovations, not every government response to Covid-19 has been a success story. In just one example, recent headlines describe long wait times for unemployment assistance compounded by increased caseloads and stress for staff. In response, we at Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) and the Center for Applied Behavioral Science at MDRC (CABS) have identified four priorities for governments to help them adapt policies, programs and services during this evolving crisis, based on our work applying behavioral science with dozens of public sector partners.”