Supporting Policy Making with Research: Challenges, Opportunities, and Lessons Learned

Research BriefTrauma & ResilienceJan 29 2020

Children, youth, and families encounter public systems in many ways throughout every stage of their development. From maternal access to prenatal care, through postsecondary and workforce supports, policies drive which services are available and to whom, the quality of these services, how they are accessed, and where they are located. The likelihood that federal, state, and local policies will yield the greatest benefit to children, youth, and families often depends on decision makers having access to high-quality information that is grounded in research, data, and on-the-ground experience. This creates an urgent imperative for researchers to increase their skills and capacity to understand the research needs of policymakers, and to communicate relevant—and often complex—data and findings in ways that respond to their time and resource constraints (Tseng, 2012).

Much is at stake: Public programs and policies have tremendous power to change the lives of children and families. Programs and policies can support children’s well-being by supporting parents; providing enriching early educational experiences; supporting the learning and social development of children and youth; strengthening families and children who interact with the child welfare system; and providing the core income, housing, and nutrition support necessary for families to provide for their children’s basic needs.


Beyond the challenge of providing effective services, policymakers must also use limited funds as efficiently and equitably as possible. Public systems must contend with both historical and current inequities in how they distribute resources and services to children and families, particularly across socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic demographics. The challenge of creating more equitable public systems is exacerbated by wide gaps in family resources: The proportion of Black and Hispanic children living in poverty far exceeds that of white children (29%, 25%, and 11% respectively) (Child Trends, 2019). Similarly, almost 28 percent of American Indian children live in poverty (Around Him & DeMand, 2018). Data and research that help policymakers understand the present circumstances of these children and families, and the role of public systems in creating, perpetuating, and alleviating these circumstances, are critically important in designing policies and programs that are equitable and effective.

Our experience at Child Trends demonstrates that good research and data can support good policy making by giving policymakers essential information about children at the local, state, and national levels—who they are, what they need to thrive, and which programs and services best meet their needs. Once empowered with this knowledge and context, policymakers can employ research findings to determine what policies and services they fund and to support effective implementation. Finally, ongoing data and evaluation are essential to help policymakers continuously refine services to ensure that they are effective and efficient means of helping children thrive.

Over the past four years, with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Child Trends has examined its work to share research with policymakers and explore new strategies to strengthen these efforts. This initiative aligns with other Child Trends efforts to bring research into policy discussions— including efforts supported by the Irving Harris Foundation, the Alliance for Early Success, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Throughout the course of this initiative, we strove to incorporate the lessons learned in each individual effort across Child Trends’ entire body of work.

Our examination began with a deep exploration of the existing academic research on how policymakers use data and evidence (Jordan & Cooper, 2016); using this research as a base, we organized our strategies for sharing research with policymakers into four themes. Each theme is rooted in a challenge and set of related opportunities for policymakers to incorporate research into their work:

  • Interpreting complex research concepts
  • Sharing research during crises
  • Using data to highlight and address inequity
  • Strengthening and applying the evidence base

This brief explores each theme through case studies of how Child Trends infused research and data into the policy landscape for some of the most pressing child/youth policy issues of recent years, from gun violence to equity to landmark child welfare legislation. In each case study below, we present a complex and nuanced issue and the initial response from policymakers, note the obstacles to using research to formulate policy solutions and the underlying challenges that create these obstacles, and share our strategies for engaging with policymakers. Later, we offer recommendations for both policymakers and researchers as they work to achieve better outcomes for children and families.