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Finding Policies That Work

By Dean Henry E. Brady

Gene Bardach’s classic Eight Fold Path tells us that doing policy analysis requires eight steps:  identifying problems, assessing their severity, constructing alternative approaches, evaluating them, projecting likely outcomes, confronting tradeoffs, deciding, and telling a story.   Some academics focus on the first four or five of these steps, and never confront tradeoffs, decide, and tell a story that leads to policy changes.   GSPP’s faculty excel at these first steps, but they also get to the finish-line and find policies that work.  Consider these examples which led to state or national attention: 

In a report published in March 2014, GSPP Professor Steve Raphael and UCLA Professor Michael Stoll brought the best available data together to argue that states should reduce “the scope and severity of truth-in-sentencing laws that mandate that inmates serve a minimum proportion of their sentences” and even abandon mandatory minimum sentences.  Using careful cost-benefit analysis, they showed that incarcerating someone for minor property crimes or drug offenses at the cost of about $50,000 per year does not make much sense because the financial impact of their crimes is much less than the cost of committing them to prison.[1]   California subsequently passed Proposition 47 in November 2014 that re-categorized some nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors, rather than felonies, and in November 2016, Californians approved Proposition 57 that allowed parole consideration for nonviolent felons.  The result will be hundreds of millions in savings. 

Many economists argue that across-the-board increases in spending on K-12 education do not do much to increase student achievement, but GSPP faculty member Rucker Johnson and GSPP PhD Sean Tanner argue that the missing ingredient is careful targeting of resources.  In a recently published report they show that one of Jerry Brown’s signature legislative initiatives, the Local Control Funding Formula, has led to “significant increases in high school graduation rates and academic achievement, particularly among children from low-income families.”  They recommend that other states adopt similar legislation because “money targeted to students’ needs can make a significant difference in student outcomes.”[2]  GSPP Professor Jesse Rothstein and his coauthors came to the same conclusion in a February 2016 paper that looked at school finance reforms across the nation.[3]

GSPP Berkeley faculty member Sol Hsiang and Princeton ecologist Nitin Sekar recently analyzed elephant poaching data to evaluate the impact of legalization of the ivory trade—a policy recommended by some who believe it will cause black markets to collapse. [4]    They conclude that “changes to producer costs and/or consumer demand induced by legal sales can have larger effects than displacement of illegal production in some global black markets, implying that partial legalization of banned goods does not necessarily reduce black market activity.”  They recommend that policy-makers reconsider legalization of the ivory trade.  

In a series of path-breaking papers, GSPP Professor Hilary Hoynes has shown that government expenditures in social programs such as food stamps (now called SNAP—Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) are not only justified on humanitarian grounds, they also have long-term implications for children.   She and her co-authors find that during the phased roll-out of food stamps fifty years ago, the children living in those counties where food-stamps were first made available are now, as adults, much more likely to be healthy and employed.[5]   The conclusion that we should fund these programs reinforces our humanitarian instincts—these program are not only morally the right thing to do, they are also economically a smart thing to do. 

By the way, in mid-April, Professor Hoynes became the sixth member of the Goldman School faculty elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences started in 1780 by John Adams, John Hancock, and other founders.  

[1] Steven Raphael and Michael A. Stoll, (March 2014), “A New Approach to Reducing Incarceration While Maintaining Low Rates of Crime,” The Hamilton Project,

[2] Rucker C. Johnson and Sean Tanner, (February 2018), “Money and Freedom:  The Impact of California’s School Finance Reform,” Learning Policy Institution,

[3] Julien Lafortune, Jesse Rothstein, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, (February 2016), “School Finance Reform and the Distribution of Student Achievement,” National Bureau of Economic Research,  Also see Emeritus Professor David Kirp’s summary of this research in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, “Money matters in education, as long as you spend it at the right time and on the right students,” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2018.  

[4] Solomon Hsiang and Nitin Sekar, June, 2016, “Does Legalization Reduce Black Market Activity?  Evidence from a Global Ivory Experiment and Elephant Poaching Data,” NBER Working Paper,

[5] Hilary W. Hoynes, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, Douglas Almond, November, 2012, “Long Run Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net,” NBER,