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Behavioral Economics and Social Policy: Designing Innovative Solutions for ACF Programs

Photo of a mother and father with their daughter sitting in a park.By Emily Schmitt, Social Scientist Research Analyst, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation

The Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project is the first major opportunity to use a behavioral economics lens — which combines insights from psychology and economics — to look at programs that serve poor and vulnerable people in the United States. The project aims to learn how tools from behavioral economics can improve the well-being of individuals and families served by ACF programs.

A recent report provides an overview of behavioral economics and illustrates how the BIAS project draws on the principles of behavioral economics to design solutions for ACF programs. In partnership with program administrators, the BIAS team used a method called “behavioral diagnosis and design” to delve into problems that program administrators have identified, diagnose potential bottlenecks that may inhibit program performance, and identify areas where a relatively easy and low-cost, behaviorally informed change might improve outcomes.

  • Working with the Texas Office of the Attorney General´s Child Support Division, the BIAS team explored ways to increase the number of incarcerated noncustodial parents who apply for a modification of their child support order, with the goal of preventing further accrual of child support debts.
  • The project team also engaged with the Illinois Department of Human Services and one of its job search contractors to identify behavioral interventions that could help increase the rate of engagement in job search assistance among clients who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
  • Finally, work with the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) focused on reducing the number of callers who reach a hold message but hang up before talking to an NDVH staffer.

As the project moves forward, the BIAS team will continue to work with public officials to design and apply behavioral interventions in ACF program areas to generate new ways of tackling problems. They will test promising interventions using rigorous research designs, employing experimental methods to determine — with reliability— the impact of an intervention. Future publications will report the impacts of these interventions.

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