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Why Evidence Should Be a Priority in Pandemic Recovery

Billions in federal aid give state and local governments the opportunity to leverage evidence-based approaches to help disproportionately impacted communities and address long-term systemic challenges.

State, local, territorial and tribal governments have begun to receive shares of the $350 billion in fiscal aid set aside for them in the American Rescue Plan (ARP). One of the the primary goals of this funding is to help communities design their own context-specific responses to public health needs and economic damage from the pandemic. Under this broad umbrella, recipient governments have enormous flexibility to help disproportionately impacted communities and to prioritize programs aimed at meeting both short-term recovery needs and long-term systemic challenges.

Local leaders can use the flexible pool of ARP funds to balance immediate priorities around recovery from the pandemic with long-standing goals around equity, public health and education. By focusing on evidence — both by spending on existing evidence-informed programs and building evidence-generating evaluations into new initiatives — governments can strike this balance effectively and build resilience in the long run.

State and local governments must make tough decisions about which kinds of recovery to focus on first, sort through a multitude of policy options and implement services that will best meet the needs of their communities. Too often these decisions are made without the knowledge of whether particular approaches have previously been tried or proven effective.

A growing number of states and cities are seeking reliable evidence to guide their efforts to support their communities’ well-being, and Treasury Department guidance calls on governments to devote ARP funding toward evidence-based interventions. At J-PAL North America, a research center focused on reducing poverty, we share research-backed lessons on how to address a range of challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. These lessons span nine social policy areas linked to poverty alleviation, including:

● Addressing learning loss: COVID-19 has caused unprecedented interruption to learning. Evidence shows that tutoring is an effective tool for addressing these losses: A recent review of 96 studies found that tutoring programs have consistently improved student learning and that effective programs share a set of common principles that can be replicated.

● Increasing housing stability: The pandemic’s economic impacts accelerated an ongoing increase in the number of people and families experiencing homelessness. Rigorous research points to several response strategies backed by evidence, including emergency financial assistance to help people stay in their homes and permanent supportive housing to provide long-term housing stability for some populations.

● Developing job-relevant skills: Job training and re-skilling programs, along with comprehensive support programs that boost community college retention and degree completion, show promise to meaningfully advance economic and social recovery in different ways.

This moment presents states and localities with an opportunity to try out new ideas without having to cut support from existing programs. The ARP’s structure and timeline, as a one-time infusion of money that can be used over the next four years, lends itself well to generating a body of new learning. State and local governments could choose to use some of their funding to pilot new ideas, partnering with researchers to monitor and evaluate impacts for a few years. They could then use that information to decide which policies to adapt and which to expand.

We’ve partnered with policymakers and researchers to identify a number of areas and priorities ripe for testing new research-informed solutions. For example, state and local stakeholders identified access to child care as an important factor affecting households in which all adults work, but one which is not always included in research on employment and jobs. If a jurisdiction interested in running a child-care program can afford to serve only some of the families who apply, it could use a lottery to assign spots. By then examining differences in outcomes such as household income and job retention, the jurisdiction can gain a trove of information about how child-care provision impacts its residents and make an informed decision about whether to dedicate more resources to it in the future.

This is just one example of an evaluation opportunity that could dovetail with economic recovery spending under the ARP. There are dozens of others, ranging from economic security to health to safety and justice. By tapping into these priorities, taking cues from what others are trying and building partnerships with researchers who share a commitment to common goals, state and local governments can harness rigorous evaluation to respond to future hardships and build their communities’ long-term strength and resilience in the post-pandemic era.

Rohit Naimpally is a senior research and policy manager at J-PAL North America. He can be reached at
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