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Improving Access to Federal Data for More Efficient Evaluations

03/2012
| Gordon Berlin

Testimony of Gordon L. Berlin, President, MDRC, Before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources, on March 20, 2012.

Good afternoon. My name is Gordon Berlin, and I am the President of MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization that is dedicated to learning what works to improve policies and programs that affect the poor. Founded in 1974, MDRC evaluates existing programs and tries out new solutions to some of the nation’s most pressing social problems, using rigorous random assignment research designs or near equivalents to assess their impact. Many of our research projects are funded through contracts with federal agencies.

I am pleased to be here today to speak with you about making a simple change to the law governing the National Directory of New Hires (NDNH) database, maintained by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), that will remove a barrier to accurate, cost-effective assessment of the employment effects of federally supported social policy programs — a barrier that results in unnecessary duplicative costs for the federal government and in excess reporting burdens for the states. This is an issue of some urgency in a time of severe budget constraints and fiscal austerity. Congress must have credible, nonpartisan information to understand whether federally supported programs actually help people find work and increase their earnings. The information is critical for Congressional determinations regarding whether discretionary social programs merit the continued investment of taxpayer money.

Research firms that are funded by federal agencies to evaluate programs often rely on data collected by states from employers on employment and earnings, data that the states already report to the federal government for certain child support enforcement and other purposes. These data are housed in accessible form at the federal level within the National Directory of New Hires (NDNH) database. However, research contractors are generally unable to access this essential database for assessing whether federally supported programs actually work. Instead, they are forced to get the very same data directly from the states, at great cost to the federal government and at considerable burden in duplicative reporting for the states. If the NDNH database were made available to evaluators (with appropriate privacy safeguards), it would enable Congress and the federal agencies to assess the impact that social programs have on jobs and earnings at much less cost and burden to the federal government and the states.

During this testimony, I will describe the problem faced by evaluators and will suggest a cost-effective and safe solution for making the data that is housed within the NDNH available to researchers working on federally funded program evaluations.