Making progress on the middle road (NY Daily News)

By Bill Hammond

Way too much of what passes for political debate in today’s America consists of pigeonholing ideas as “liberal” or “conservative,” then passionately building them up or tearing them down on that basis.

And way too much of what passes for social policy consists of spending money and passing laws without bothering to measure what progress is achieved, if any.

So it’s refreshing to find two examples in this week’s headlines of people focused on figuring out what really works, not just scoring partisan points.

In the first of these outside-the-box programs, Colorado tried and smashingly succeeded in reducing unwanted pregnancies and abortions.

In the second, New York City tried and sadly failed to slow the revolving door for teen offenders at Rikers Island — while also pioneering a creative way of financing social programs.

What these efforts shared was a willingness to try new approaches to old problems, to look past ideological boundaries and — most importantly — to be guided by hard-nosed assessments of the results.

In Colorado, state officials tackled a cause usually associated with conservatives (stopping abortions) using a tool usually associated with liberals (birth control).

In 2009, with funding from a private grant, the Colorado Department of Public Health started providing long-term contraceptives — intrauterine devices (IUDs) and drug implants inserted in the arm — at little or no cost to the mainly low-income women who use state-funded clinics.

More than 30,000 women took the offer, compared to just a few hundred clinic patients per year who used long-term birth control before the program started.

The results, as highlighted in Tuesday’s New York Times, have been impressive: As of 2013, Colorado’s overall teenage birth rate had dropped by 40% and its abortion rate by 42% — which should be cause for celebration across the right-left spectrum.

This might sound like a no-brainer, that birth control would control births. But many conservatives disapprove of what they see as subsidizing sex lives.

Many liberals, meanwhile, are leery of pushing one form of birth control over another, even if long-term devices work dramatically better.

That these positions can lead to more of what everybody doesn’t want — teen pregnancies and abortions — is clearer than ever from the Colorado experience.

New York City’s experiment was aimed at another social ill — that roughly half of the 16- to 18-year-olds released from Rikers Island will land back in jail within a year, at great damage to their futures and cost to taxpayers.

In 2012, the Bloomberg administration hired a non-profit group to give those kids special training and counseling — an approach that had shown success in other jails.

The city paid for it with America’s first-ever “social impact bond.” The $7.2 million cost was covered not by an outlay of tax dollars, but with an “investment” by Goldman Sachs, backed by a $6 million loan guarantee from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

If the program had succeeded in reducing recidivism by 10% or more, the city would have paid the firm its money back plus a $2.1 million profit — money well spent on turning lives around. Suddenly, masters of the universe had a direct stake in making lives better for those at the bottom.

This week it was determined that, alas, three years of good work had had no measurable effect. So Goldman eats a $1.2 million loss, taxpayers owe nothing and the city is free to search for other solutions.

This is a huge and welcome contrast to how government usually operates, pumping money into the same well-intentioned programs, year after year, whether they make a difference or not.

All involved should take pride, both in what they tried to do for those kids on Rikers and in having pioneered a financing tool with immense promise for better government.

whammond@nydailynews.com