Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS), 2010-2016

Project Overview

Many human services programs are designed such that individuals must make active decisions and go through a series of steps in order to benefit from them — from deciding which programs to apply for, to completing forms, attending meetings, showing proof of eligibility, and arranging travel and child care. Program designers often implicitly assume that individuals will carefully consider options and make decisions that maximize their well-being. But research in the area of behavioral economics has shown that human decision-making is often imperfect and imprecise. People — clients and program administrators alike — procrastinate, get overwhelmed by choices, and miss important details. As a result, both programs and participants may not always achieve the goals they set for themselves.

Insights from behavioral economics, which combines findings from psychology and economics, suggest that a deeper understanding of decision-making and behavior could improve human services program design and outcomes. Principles from behavioral economics can both shed light on decision-making and offer new tools to improve outcomes for program participants. For example, small changes in the environment can facilitate desired behaviors, planning and commitment devices can be used to improve self-control, and default rules can produce positive outcomes even for people who fail to act.

The Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project was the first major opportunity to apply a behavioral economics lens to programs that serve poor and vulnerable families in the United States. The purpose of the project is to apply behavioral insights to issues related to the design and implementation of social service programs and policies. The ultimate goal is to learn how tools from behavioral science can be used to improve the well-being of low-income children, adults, and families. BIAS is being led by MDRC in collaboration with academic behavioral science experts.

In the first two years of the project, the BIAS team developed a strong base of knowledge of the existing behavioral economics literature and the needs of human services programs. The team engaged in detailed conversations with stakeholders from the academic, policy, and practitioner communities, created a glossary of behavioral interventions from a review of select field experiments, and hosted a Peer Practicum during which program administrators from across the nation joined with behavioral experts to explore the application of behavioral economics to ACF programs. The BIAS report “Behavioral Economics and Social Policy: Designing Innovative Solutions for Programs Supported by the Administration for Children and Families” describes insights from these early stages of the project.

Following this knowledge development phase, the BIAS team worked with select ACF programs to diagnosis program challenges using a behavioral economics lens and design and test behaviorally-informed interventions. BIAS conducted 15 random assignment tests in seven states with nearly 100,000 sample members. Projects range from work to increase child support collections, to improving child care recertification processes, to changing the messaging around TANF participation. The results of these tests have demonstrated the promise of applying insights from behavioral science to improve human services program outcomes.

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The point of contact is Emily Schmitt.

  • Framing the Message: Using Behavioral Economics to Engage TANF Recipients

    Published: March 10, 2016

    This report presents findings from an intervention designed to increase the number of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients who “reengaged” in Los Angeles County’s welfare-to-work program...

  • Nudges for Child Support: Applying Behavioral Insights to Increase Collections

    Published: February 10, 2016

    This impact report from the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project presents findings from four tests of behavioral interventions intended to increase the percentage of parents who made child support payments and the dollar amount of collections per parent in Cuyahoga County, Ohio

  • Engaging Providers and Clients: Using Behavioral Economics to Increase On-Time Child Care Subsidy Renewals

    Published: January 8, 2016

    This report presents findings from a study designed in partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) to increase the number of clients who renew their child care subsidy on time.

    The Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) team diagnosed factors that might inhibit on-time renewal and designed three interventions for improvement...

  • The Power of Prompts: Using Behavioral Insights to Encourage People to Participate

    Published: September 16, 2015

    This report presents findings from a study of two behavioral interventions — one that used behavioral messaging postcards and text message reminders to encourage participation in an optional meeting, and one that made the meeting easier to attend.

    The goal of each intervention was to increase participant attendance at an optional informational meeting for Paycheck Plus, an earnings supplement program in which participants had previously enrolled. These meetings gave clients an...

  • Reminders to Pay: Using Behavioral Economics to Increase Child Support Payments

    Published: July 15, 2015

    This report presents findings from two behavioral interventions designed to increase the collection of child support payments in Franklin County, Ohio. As part of the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project, the Franklin County Child Support Enforcement Agency implemented two interventions informed by behavioral economics principles to increase child support payments from noncustodial parents who do not have income withholding and need to take action each month...

  • Fatherhood: Ongoing Research and Program Evaluation Efforts

    Published: June 17, 2015

    Many programs within the Administration for Children and Families work with fathers to promote economic self-sufficiency and social well-being for them and their families. As a part of that work, we also implement rigorous research and evaluation projects designed to improve our understanding of how best to serve those fathers. This brief describes research and evaluation projects related to the Responsible Fatherhood grant program and noncustodial parents, and other research related...

  • Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Individuals: Ongoing Research and Program Evaluation Efforts

    Published: June 17, 2015

    Several programs within the Administration for Children and Families work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals in an effort to promote economic self-sufficiency and social well-being for them and their families. As a part of that work, we also implement rigorous research and evaluation projects designed to improve our understanding of how best to serve these individuals. This brief highlights and describes these projects...

  • Taking the First Step: Using Behavioral Economics to Help Incarcerated Parents Apply for Child Support Order Modifications

    Published: September 8, 2014

    The Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project is the first major effort to apply a behavioral economics lens to programs that serve poor and vulnerable families in the United States. This report presents findings from a behavioral intervention designed to increase the number of incarcerated noncustodial parents in Texas who apply for modifications to reduce the amount of their child support orders. Using a method called “behavioral diagnosis and design”...

  • Behavioral Economics and Social Policy: Designing Innovative Solutions for Programs Supported by the Administration for Children and Families

    Published: April 29, 2014

    Insights from behavioral economics, which combines findings from psychology and economics, suggest that a deeper understanding of decision-making and behavior could improve human services program design and outcomes. Research has shown that small changes in the environment can facilitate behaviors and decisions that are in people’s best interest. However, there has been relatively little exploration of the potential application of this science to complex, large-scale human services...

More Reports on this Project