Illustrating The Critical Importance of Framing Assumptions for Policy Analysis

            It is commonplace in the policy analysis academic literature to read articles in which scholars express concern that their careful inquiry into how public programs might be better designed or implemented more effectively is routinely ignored or simply set aside. One major reason why that occurs is that lawmakers are unwilling to embrace evidence and steps that contradict their basic orientation or frame toward the domain under consideration. This results in a deep reticence to challenge that perspective, typically built on basic values and beliefs. The Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance (VTIPG) experience in several areas of policy research can be used to illustrate this fundamental and enduring dilemma.

            VTIPG has long been active in research in a number of policy domains that serve or reach vulnerable populations. These include TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), foster care, early childhood education and post-incarceration social reintegration. In each of these areas, policy action is framed by assumptions that often define and even dictate what steps elected leaders are willing to consider within them, irrespective of the evidence with which those leaders are presented. For example, programs that serve the poor are routinely subject to lawmakers’ assumption that many who qualify will “take advantage” of them, whatever their level of poverty, or that individuals receiving such benefits are otherwise not “truly worthy” of such assistance.

            Likewise, legislators, especially GOP lawmakers, often assume that such initiatives will undermine citizens’ willingness to work and thereby breed dependence on the public fisc. Governmental aid to the impoverished is routinely vilified in partisan squabbles and in Republican campaigns on just such grounds. This orientation makes it relatively easy (and common) for such leaders to argue that programs aimed at assisting the poor should be reduced or eliminated. Given their collective devotion to this assumption, persuading them to consider data that might suggest that their view does not hold in whole or in part is often very difficult. In short, as a practical matter, legislators are likely to evaluate policy analyses and evidence in light of their existing framing assumptions. Those shape their policy predilection and the range of possible actions they are likely to perceive as credible, even before any systematic examination or exploration of options has taken place.

            If many lawmakers often assume that poor and hungry constituents are not genuinely worthy or will be harmed and become “dependent” by alleviation of their situation, many public officials similarly presume that a relative’s home is the right place for a child who cannot remain with one or more of his or her biological parents for whatever reason. In this view, second or third cousins, separated by time, territory and any previous engagement, or a troubled but “eligible” grandparent, per se represent a “better” option than placement with a willing but unrelated individual or family. This frame partly results from lawmakers’ belief (empirically not always true) that a so-called “family” placement will be less expensive, but principally it is the consequence of an a priori view that a “blood” relative as responsible party is somehow better for the child. It is simply received wisdom. In a similar way, exploratory studies that might suggest placement outside of family members (of whatever stripe) for a whole host of reasons are unlikely even to be requested or explored (or funded). Obviously, these governing framing assumptions may, and often do, foreclose alternatives that might result in better care and outcomes for the affected youths than those selected. In this case, it is difficult to know how high the opportunity costs of lawmakers “already knowing the answer” actually are.

            It has long been known that children afforded high quality educational programs early in their lives are likely to perform better when they enter school and to continue to reach higher levels of achievement in later years than they would otherwise attain. Pre-schoolers exposed to well-designed educational opportunities led by highly qualified professionals are also more likely to be appropriately socialized for school thereafter. Recent brain research has also pointed to how much youngsters can gain from such curricula, both cognitively and socially.

            Nonetheless, lawmakers are often reticent to fund such efforts because skeptical that these children need more than “babysitting.” In fact, licensed educational programs for pre-school teachers and effective professional educators offering them surely imply higher costs than “babysitting” (a typical low wage starting post for pre-teens and teens). To the extent that lawmakers cannot see past this common view that all pre-K youngsters require is someone to watch them, they are unlikely to hear and consider seriously contrary evidence and claims, however thoroughly and carefully collected and argued. As with the examples above, what many legislators “already know” about early childhood needs strongly shapes their willingness and capacity to consider contrary contentions. Many policy analyses have suggested that the opportunity costs of this assumption when it prevails are virtually incalculable.

            Finally, Institute faculty members have worked to improve the design and implementation of prison release and reintegration programs. Many lawmakers frame this policy area as a tension between punishment and social forgiveness, and that view often finds those officials unwilling to provide much besides very limited support to help those previously incarcerated reintegrate into society. Viewed through this frame, ex-convicts deserve little and must somehow continue to compensate for their previous acts (irrespective of their time served) with limited public assistance. This perspective often sharply limits both the amount and character of aid that former inmates receive as they seek to find housing and employment and begin new lives following their release. That reality too often places them at increased risk to recidivate as they struggle unsuccessfully with the constraints in which they are expected to function.

            In short, as a practical matter, many lawmakers approach policy questions and public programs with framing assumptions that already sharply circumscribe what is possible, irrespective of what more nuanced or objective studies might suggest would prove appropriate courses of action. Policy analyses, however well crafted and professionally undertaken, can only inform those who wish to listen and consider carefully those arguments and findings. In many policy domains, unfortunately, and for reasons that often have no relationship to the accuracy or credibility of such investigations, too often careful evaluation and assessment either are unheeded or unimplemented or both. For those interested in ensuring public policy and program effectiveness, including VTIPG faculty and staff, this situation represents a continuing and difficult reality.