40 Years of Making a Difference: The Impact of MDRC’s Work on Policy and Practice

Over the past 40 years, MDRC has had an important impact both on federal and state policy and on program practice in a wide range of domains — from welfare reform and prisoner reentry to youth programs and education reform. Sometimes our findings provide support for expanding a successful program or policy initiative; in other cases, they provide a blueprint for improvement or suggest pursuing an alternative approach. We have also had an important role as a catalyst in the current national focus on evidence-based policy. Below are a few selected examples of our work. 

Employing the Hard-to-Employ

Welfare to Work: A series of pioneering experiments in nine states that added work requirements as a quid pro quo for welfare receipt led to increases in employment and earnings and reductions in welfare receipt — resulting, in turn, in savings for government budgets. In fact, we demonstrated that it would cost governments more not to run these programs. These findings formed the basis for the passage of major welfare reform legislation in 1988. The “work first” and “job club” models at the heart of these reforms are now the mainstay of welfare systems in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and much of Europe. 

Making Work Pay: This set of experiments in three states and one Canadian province demonstrated that an offer to supplement the earnings of welfare recipients and others who left welfare for work would lead to increases in employment and earnings and improvements in the school performance of younger children. These findings played a key role in state decisions to preserve and expand state Earned Income Tax Credit policies and, when passing conforming legislation to the Clinton era welfare reforms, to allow welfare systems to supplement initial earnings. Nearly every state includes earnings disregards and supplement strategies as part of its welfare laws. MDRC’s work was cited extensively by both the right and the left in the welfare reform debates of the 1990s. The positive effects of earnings supplements on children helped spawn the current interest in two-generation policies that focus on both mothers and children. 

Jobs-Plus: Conceived, designed, and evaluated by MDRC and foundation partners, this saturation employment and rent/work incentive program in public housing developments produced important increases in employment and earnings, demonstrating the efficacy of using housing as a platform for promoting self-sufficiency. The New York City Center for Economic Opportunity is expanding Jobs-Plus to new public housing developments with the help of MDRC. Citing MDRC findings, the Obama Administration budget proposed funding to expand the model. Recently, we began work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on two projects that would extend this work — assessing the work and related effects of the Family Self-Sufficiency Program and experimenting with new forms of rent incentives. 

CEO Prisoner Reentry Program: Our evaluation of this subsidized employment program for recently released ex-offenders in New York City, which provides “a day’s pay for a day’s work,” found that the program not only reduced recidivism but that it more than paid for itself in lower jail expenditures. These findings led to the selection of CEO by two Social Innovation Fund (SIF) intermediaries and its expansion to three new cities. It has also become the model program that New York State will replicate with financing from a Social Impact Bond (SIB) supported by the U.S. Department of Labor. Both the SIF and SIB expansions require additional evaluation — necessary because this was a one-site test and MDRC tests of other reentry program models have not found similar effects. 

Transitional Jobs: MDRC’s cluster of projects evaluating transitional jobs programs — short-term subsidized employment programs designed to provide recent work history for the temporarily unemployed to help them transition to unsubsidized employment — found few effects on employment rates or earnings one year later. The work suggested several possible explanations that led the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services to issue RFPs to study the efficacy of alternative models of transitional jobs programs. Citing MDRC’s results, the President’s budget provided no new funding for transitional jobs programs until such time as the evidence base warranted it. MDRC is now conducting those experiments. 

Youth Programs and Education

National Guard Youth ChalleNGe: MDRC’s positive findings about ChalleNGe, a comprehensive residential youth program serving 100,000 at-risk youth annually on National Guard bases, led directly to an increase in federal funding. The study showed that young people who had access to ChalleNGe were more likely to earn a GED, more likely to have at least started college, and more likely to be working. This is a notable achievement, since most evaluations of programs for disadvantaged youth have found either no effects or that early impacts fade over time. For this reason, we have recommended that longer follow-up studies be conducted. 

Youth Programs Funded by the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA): Sometimes finding out something doesn’t work has a lasting effect on policy. This large-scale national evaluation of job training programs found no effects overall and negative effects for some subgroups of young people with criminal justice backgrounds. These findings sent policymakers and program practitioners back to the drawing board. Congress moved the following year to eliminate funding for youth programs under JTPA, and a next generation of more comprehensive youth programs, including the ChalleNGe program described above, YouthBuild, and others, began. 

New York City Small High Schools: New York City’s unprecedented approach to school reform — closing large failing schools, implementing “choice” into students’ high school selections, and opening small high schools to replace the closing schools — was panned in an early evaluation that was unable to employ a rigorous research design. MDRC was able to exploit the choice process to identify a natural experiment involving 105 high schools and 21,000 students, making it one of the most rigorous studies of reform yet conducted. The study found that small high schools are having a substantial and sustained effect on academic performance, high school graduation, and college readiness for a wide range of disadvantaged students, including African-American males and students with low eighth-grade proficiency in math and English. These results played a significant role in the city’s decision to continue to open new small schools. Nationally, the Carnegie Foundation has redoubled its efforts to promote small high schools, and MDRC has been advising the U.S. Department of Education about encouraging its School Improvement Grants program to support similar reforms. 

Career Academies: MDRC’s evaluation of Career Academies, a prominent college and career prep high school model, showed substantial long-term earnings gains, especially for minority males, which has helped propel the growth of the program model — from 3,500 when the final results were released to more than 7,000 nationwide today. The Obama Administration, citing MDRC’s research, proposed investing $1 billion in the model. Career Academies produced sustained earnings gains that averaged 11 percent (or $2,088) more per year for Academy group members than for individuals in the non-Academy group, leading in turn to a greater likelihood of living independently, being married, and supporting one’s children. Since completing the study, we have developed a new “College and Careers” curriculum and provided technical assistance to the field. 

Talent Development High School Reform: This model, which focuses on transforming the ninth-grade by separating freshmen from all other students, scheduling double-block classes of math and writing instruction, ensuring every student takes Algebra, and providing coaches and professional development for teachers, led to a 25 percentage-point increase in the number of students passing Algebra I in participating inner-city Philadelphia high schools. These findings were instrumental in Talent Development (now called Diplomas Now) being awarded a $30-million expansion grant in the Department of Education’s evidence-driven Investing in Innovation (i3) initiative. MDRC is now evaluating the expansion effort. 

Launching the First Social Impact Bond in the United States: As one policy expert put it, Social Impact Bonds (SIB) have the highest ratio of words spoken to deals done in the world. MDRC’s Rikers Island project, a collaboration with the City of New York and its Department of Corrections, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and Goldman Sachs, was the first operational SIB in the nation. We believe that our long history as an intermediary organization that creates and implements programs was pivotal in making the deal happen and the scale-up of the program for incarcerated youth possible.

Document Details

Publication Type
Issue Focus
November 2013
2013. “40 Years of Making a Difference: The Impact of MDRC’s Work on Policy and Practice.” New York: MDRC.