Collaboration in Civic Spheres

WA: one in five social programs checked don’t pencil out

by Matt Rosenberg April 17th, 2012

A new report from the Washington legislature’s non-partisan policy analysis unit, the Washington State Institute For Public Policy, finds that of 98 programs recently reviewed for what researchers liken to an investment advisor’s “buy-sell” list, 79 pass muster financially, with measured per-participant financial benefits to the state which exceed costs; but 19 do not. Another 45 which are identified, haven’t been recently evaluated for cost effectiveness, the report says. Of the new results in the April 2012 report – titled “Return On Investment: Evidence-Based Options to Improve Statewide Outcomes” – the so-called “net present value” (benefits to the state per participant minus costs) was highest for a series of juvenile justice and adult criminal justice programs, and lowest for a sub-group of child and teen prevention and preK-12 education programs including Early Head Start and Even Start.

Using detailed economic analytic models, the Institute’s researchers have regularly updated and expanded work begun in 1997 under the legislature’s direction to measure, essentially, bang for buck to the state and its taxpayers from a wide array of programs seeking to improve outcomes in juvenile justice, adult criminal justice, child welfare, preK-12 education, children’s mental health, general prevention programs for kids and teens, substance abuse and adult mental health.

Among the taxpayer-funded Washington state social programs analyzed for the new report, those with highest net-present value (NPV) are:

  • functional family therapy, institutions; NPV (benefits per participant to the state minus costs per participant) = $67,108
  • aggression replacement training, institutions; NPV = $61,440
  • offender re-entry community safety program (dangerously mentally ill offenders); NPV = $38,288
  • multidimensional treatment foster care; NPV = $31,276
  • functional family therapy, probation; NPV = $30,706
  • aggression replacement training, probation; NPV = $29,740
  • Among programs analyzed in the new report, those with the lowest net-present value (NPV) are:

  • Fast Track prevention program (children and adolescents); NPV = -$56,794
  • CASASTART; NPV = -$8,380
  • Early Head Start; NPV = -$8,156
  • Children’s Aid Society, Carrera; NPV = -$7,036
  • Multimodal Therapy for children with ADHD; NPV = -$6,593
  • Even Start; NPV = -$5,383
  • Among the 45 programs which the report says have not been recently evaluated for cost effectiveness are juvenile and adult boot camp, sex offender treatment for juveniles and adults, teen courts, wilderness challenge programs, adult life skills education, adult drug treatment in jail, adult sex offender treatment, subsidized guardianship, and family team decision making. In K-12 education, programs awaiting updated cost effectiveness analysis include impact of a teacher having a graduate degree, an in-subject graduate degree, and one which attempts to correlate teacher effectiveness with years of experience.  

    In adult mental health, cost-benefit updates await for programs including those providing PTSD treatment, day programs for mentally-ill adults, remote cognitive behavorial therapy and primary care interventions for depression. In public health, new and rigorous-enough effectiveness evaluations haven’t been done on early child care nutrition and physical activity, taxes on sweetened beverages and snacks, and menu nutrition labeling and information posting.


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