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The economics and econometrics of active labor market programs

In: Handbook of Labor Economics

  • Heckman, James J.
  • Lalonde, Robert J.
  • Smith, Jeffrey A.

Policy makers view public sector-sponsored employment and training programs and other active labor market policies as tools for integrating the unemployed and economically disadvantaged into the work force. Few public sector programs have received such intensive scrutiny, and been subjected to so many different evaluation strategies. This chapter examines the impacts of active labor market policies, such as job training, job search assistance, and job subsidies, and the methods used to evaluate their effectiveness. Previous evaluations of policies in OECD countries indicate that these programs usually have at best a modest impact on participants' labor market prospects. But at the same time, they also indicate that there is considerable heterogeneity in the impact of these programs. For some groups, a compelling case can be made that these policies generate high rates of return, while for other groups these policies have had no impact and may have been harmful. Our discussion of the methods used to evaluate these policies has more general interest. We believe that the same issues arise generally in the social sciences and are no easier to address elsewhere. As a result, a major focus of this chapter is on the methodological lessons learned from evaluating these programs. One of the most important of these lessons is that there is no inherent method of choice for conducting program evaluations. The choice between experimental and non-experimental methods or among alternative econometric estimators should be guided by the underlying economic models, the available data, and the questions being addressed. Too much emphasis has been placed on formulating alternative econometric methods for correcting for selection bias and too little given to the quality of the underlying data. Although it is expensive, obtaining better data is the only way to solve the evaluation problem in a convincing way. However, better data are not synonymous with social experiments.

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This chapter was published in:
  • O. Ashenfelter & D. Card (ed.), 1999. "Handbook of Labor Economics," Handbook of Labor Economics, Elsevier, edition 1, volume 3, number 3.
  • This item is provided by Elsevier in its series Handbook of Labor Economics with number 3-31.
    Handle: RePEc:eee:labchp:3-31
    Contact details of provider: Web page: http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/bookseriesdescription.cws_home/BS_HE/description

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