Health and Human Services: Foster Care (Pew Prospectus)

  • April 18, 2005
The classic “odd couple,” Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison, have nothing on the unlikely pair of J. Mark Irwy and David C. John. On a clear and crisp February morning in Washington, D.C., in 2006, Irwy, a non-resident fellow from the Brookings Institution, stood alongside John, a senior research fellow from the Heritage Foundation. Though based at think tanks associated with opposing public-policy agendas, they combined their extensive knowledge to jointly propose a strikingly straightforward way for 71 million American workers to save for retirement.

“Our collaboration,” said Irwy, “grew out of various occasions when David John and I would find ourselves on the same panel in front of a congressional committee or at a policy conference, and I was repeatedly struck by how enjoyable it was to discuss the issues and how reasonable he was.”

“Despite the fact that we were from different parts of the political spectrum,” John said on another occasion, “we found we favored the same solutions.”

Their mutual interest on retirement savings allowed them to find common ground, and their idea is now being advanced through the Retirement Security Project, based in the Trusts' Health and Human Services program. The project endorses the creation of automatic individual retirement accounts for workers whose employers do not offer retirement plans. These workers would have payroll deductions invested in low-cost, diversified individual retirement accounts.

Identifying Societal Problems

The collaboration of Irwy and John (both of whom are now senior advisers at the project) exemplifies Health and Human Services' national program.

First, we identify a compelling area that is ripe for a policy change. Currently, our work addresses three such categories: public-health and human-services policy, family financial security and emerging technologies. Specific projects include making certain that children in foster care are moved quickly to safe, permanent families; reducing the burden of student debt; and ensuring that the human health and environmental risks of nanotechnology are addressed so that we all can enjoy the potential benefits of this fast-developing field.

Advancing Sound Policy

Second, we inform the policy debate by producing rigorous, nonpartisan analysis and research—useful knowledge for policy makers, the media and the public. For example, in seeking to reduce the exposure of underage youth to alcohol advertising, the Pew-supported Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth developed the most comprehensive, publicly accessible database on this issue and pioneered a new way of conducting public health surveillance. Now the debate centers not on whether a specific ad might be attractive to youngsters but on how much alcohol advertising is reaching the underage audience. The project proved that such marketing can be measured objectively to guide the policy debate.

Finally, we seek solutions that cut across the ideological spectrum. To address the needs of children languishing in the broken foster care system, for example, the Trusts established the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, which brought together experts and stakeholders. Its recommendations have now received bipartisan support in Congress to improve court oversight and restructure the federal financing system in order to provide states with more flexibility and require increased accountability in their foster care systems.

These hallmarks—identifying a compelling issue, basing policy reforms on facts and tough-minded analysis, and seeking common ground so that action leads to positive change—are what we believe will best serve our families and our future.

James A. O'Hara III
Managing Director, Policy Initiatives and the Health and Human Services Program