Las Vegas Sun

May 23, 2018

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SUN EDITORIAL:

Trump should follow Obama’s lead in funding approach for programs

You’d think President Donald Trump would appreciate the policymaking behind the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, an Obama-era initiative that provided funding for dozens of agencies nationwide to reduce unwanted pregnancies.

After all, the program was created through what was then a revolutionary approach that would have appealed to both a fiscal conservative and a venture capitalist — making funding for social services contingent on rigorous, outcome-based research. As explained by Brookings Institution senior fellow Ron Haskins, the businesslike approach marked the first time that funding was tied to evidence. Until then, Haskins said, program operators were able to get by largely with anecdotal evidence and studies that weren’t based on sound research practices in showing policymakers why they deserved funding.

Trump may embrace Obama’s approach. But if he does, he didn’t show it last year when he announced that $213 million in funding for the teen pregnancy program would be eliminated. The move, which came without an explanation, came even though the program was showing promise.

“This, I think, is our most advanced evidence-based policy,” said Haskins, who included the program in a presentation last week at UNLV on Obama’s evidence-based policymaking.

Trump’s gutting of the pregnancy program is among several alarming examples of how his assault on Obama’s legacy will hurt real people. In Southern Nevada, where the local health district received funding under the program, it left at risk hundreds of girls who are currently receiving information through the program on safe sexual and reproductive services. Considering the local program places particular emphasis on serving low-income, disadvantaged residents, that’s especially worrisome.

Cutting the funding also doesn’t make fiscal sense. The program’s cost would have been about $500 million between 2015 and 2019, which pales in comparison to the $9.4 billion taxpayers spent on costs related to teen childbearing, such as health care, child welfare and incarceration. This is according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

So eliminating the funding is counterproductive, and Haskins says it also flies in the face of the sound policymaking strategy that Obama implemented. Funding for the program was awarded beginning in 2015 in five-year grants, with payments to be delivered annually, and the participating programs were scheduled to undergo another round of rigorous evaluation in the last two years of the first grant period. That evaluation could have identified which strategies and practices of local programs had proven to be most effective, which in turn would have provided models for other programs.

“And then the Trump administration sends out a letter saying … nope, at the end of this year, you’re done,” Haskins said. “So we won’t have evaluation. Programs are killed. We’ll waste three years of money, and we’re not going to get the results.”

Haskins suspects the program was targeted by conservatives in the Trump administration who believe in abstinence-only messaging for teens and were opposed to providing information on birth control.

“Here’s the problem: I think it’s possible nobody even told him,” Haskins said. “I don’t know of any evidence that he actually knew what was going on.

“And think of the irony of President Trump standing for abstinence. He doesn’t even stand for fidelity to your wife — to any of your wives. So I was flabbergasted, because I had never heard of an administration doing something like this with no warning.”

Understand that this comes from a Republican and a supporter of abstinence education who served as George W. Bush’s adviser on welfare. He also was a staff member of the House Ways and Means Committee for 14 years.

So Haskins is no snowflake by any means. His support of the Obama administration’s evidence-based policymaking is based in fact and experience, not political partisanship.

Trump should embrace the method, too. If he would turn off the chainsaw he’s taking to Obama’s legacy for a moment and look at the strategy objectively, the businessman in him would find a lot to like.