Today, when we travel, we often rely on mobile technology to help us navigate the world. Gone are the old days of maps, landmarks, and directions jotted down on the back of an envelope; instead, we follow turn-by-turn instructions to reach our desired destination. But navigating in the realm of policymaking is different: Evidence and facts are the guideposts that help policymakers find their way to success. That’s why Pew continues its long tradition of collecting, analyzing, and sharing nonpartisan, evidence-based data that decision-makers can use to achieve their policy objectives.
Facts are critical to our work because they’re the foundation that effective policies are built on and measured by and provide a common language that leaders can use to explain their policy choices to a deeply divided public. As such, facts don’t prejudge. They don’t pick sides in a debate. And they don’t bend to popular opinion or short-term political and cultural trends. Instead, as Stephen C. Fehr’s story in this issue of Trust notes, facts create “common ground for governors, legislators, and other leaders to develop and nurture programs that fix ills and spend taxpayers’ dollars more wisely.” Today, over two-thirds of states and more than 10 counties have used evidence-based policymaking to inform decisions about where to spend taxpayer dollars.
In Louisiana and Texas, for example, lawmakers from both parties working with technical support from Pew agreed to follow evidence-based correctional practices that establish drug and mental health services for nonviolent offenders, reduce the need to build more prisons, and save taxpayers millions of dollars. Similarly, in New Mexico, in response to data showing that many children were not developmentally ready to start school, the state funded a carefully planned and designed pre-kindergarten program. Research demonstrated that 80% of the first group of 4-year-olds in the program graduated from high school while only 74% who were not in the program graduated. Now, New Mexico has increased spending on early childhood education programs from about $150 million a decade ago to about $500 million because of the data verifying advances in learning. And, as the story reports, now the federal government is looking to evidence-based policymaking too.
The Pew Research Center is an international leader in studying issues, attitudes, and trends through nonpartisan, data-driven, social science research to develop facts that heads of governments, NGOs, and other groups rely on to better understand the world. The Center is currently working on a multiyear series of surveys looking at the lives of Black Americans. The latest of these reports, “Race Is Central to Identity for Black Americans and Affects How They Connect With Each Other,” highlights how Black Americans see themselves. Overall, 76% of Black adults say that being Black is extremely or very important to their identity.
The Center’s survey delves deep, not looking at Blacks as a monolithic group, but exploring how their views are affected by income, demographics, location, and political affiliation. The report uncovers facts that might surprise some readers and that, as journalist Charles E. Cobb Jr. notes in this issue, “reflect the great diversity of the Black American community and also offer a window onto the connectedness among Black American adults.” For example, 60% of Black adults who earn less than $42,000 say that they have “few things in common with Blacks who are wealthy.” And Black Americans under 29 are less likely to consider their Black identity important than those over 30.
In the early 2000s, discussions about climate change focused on what outcomes could happen. Today, they center on what is happening, and the facts are building: more extreme weather, ocean acidification, and loss of coastline to rising waters. To better understand these challenges—and solve them—will require new levels of cooperation among a range of stakeholders as well as solid data. One place that allows a “fast motion” view of what is happening up and down the nation’s coastlines is the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. As staff writer Carol Kaufmann explains, “Blackwater has lost 5,000 acres since the late 1970s and … the water could rise 2.1 feet by 2050.” To make matters worse, this deterioration of the Chesapeake Bay’s coastline is washing away wildlife habitat and archaeological treasures, including where Harriet Tubman was born—an area that could be fully submerged and lost in a decade. You can see and learn much more about Blackwater in a beautiful photo essay in this issue.
Every successful journey begins with a step in the right direction. In policymaking, having a solid understanding of the destination—solving a problem using nonpartisan, evidence-based research—is an essential starting point. If we look closely at the facts and follow their lead, there’s a good chance we will arrive at a more effective and prosperous future.
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