Working Paper

The role of randomized field trials in social science research: a perspective from evaluations of reforms of social welfare programs


Robert Moffitt

Published Date

1 December 2002


Working Paper (CWP23/02)

One of the areas of policy research where randomized field trials have been utilized mostintensively is welfare reform. Starting in the late 1960s with experimental tests of a negativeincome tax and continuing through current experimental tests of recent welfare reforms,randomized evaluations have played a strong and increasing role in informing policy. This paper reviews the record of these experiments and assesses the implications of that record for theuse of randomization. The review demonstrates that, while randomized field trials in the areaof welfare reform have been professionally conducted and well-run, and have yielded muchvaluable and credible information, their usefulness has been limited by a number of weaknesses,some of which are inherent in the method and some of which result from constraints imposed bythe political process. The conclusion is that randomized field trials have an important butlimited role to play in future welfare reform evaluations, and that it is essential that they besupplemented by nonexperimental research.