In the first installment of the MDRC's Expert Commentary series for the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency Project (BIAS), RSF president Sheldon Danziger discusses how policymakers and poverty researchers can better incorporate the insights of behavioral economists into their research and policy designs.
The BIAS project, a collaboration between the MDRC and the Administration for Children and Families in the US Department of Health and Human services, is the first time a federal agency has sought to incorporate behavioral science into social safety net programs. For at least the last three decades, government programs have required participants to "opt-in" rather than "opt-out" to access benefits. As Danziger notes, "This strategy neglects the research demonstrating that the experience of poverty affects decision making negatively and likely prevents the poor from claiming all the benefits to which they are entitled."
Between 2012 and 2015, the BIAS project launched 15 tests of behavioral interventions for child support, child care, and work support involving close to 100,000 clients. They found that all of their test sites "had at least one intervention with a statistically significant impact on a primary outcome of interest." For example, an outreach program to incarcerated parents in the state of Washington informed them of ways to apply to reduce their child support payments while incarcerated. This outreach increased the percentage of parents who submitted applications from 9 percent for those initiating the process largely on their own to 41 percent for those receiving the BIAS materials.
"As the BIAS final report demonstrates," Danziger writes, "we know enough to launch high-intensity interventions that could change the choice architecture of safety net programs to better reflect what we have learned about the decision making of the poor."