As communicators, we know people don’t always make the choices we hope they will in spite of our most persuasive campaigns. Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (ACF) wanted to see whether applying behavioral economics theories could help improve social service programs and policies. We, the Office of Child Support Enforcement, specifically want to understand how people’s behaviors and decision-making abilities affected their decisions in child support situations. In this specific study in Texas, could behavioral economics research help improve the number of applications an office would receive from their mailing campaign to get incarcerated parents to apply for child support order modifications? Based on the data, it worked!
There are 1 million parents in federal, state, and local jails. Many have court orders requiring them to pay child support. Some state and local child support offices often try to get these parents to have their court-ordered child support payments changed for the time they are incarcerated so they don’t build up child support debts during their jail time.
Order modification is not an automatic process in most states; parents need to request a review when their economic status changes, such as when they are incarcerated. The majority of noncustodial parents do not request a modification so they leave prison owing thousands of dollars in back support.
The Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) Project Texas Study
The ACF Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation wanted to understand two things: why these parents fail to respond to mail outs that explain how they can request modifications; and what kinds of small, inexpensive process changes could state and local agencies make that would influence more parents to complete a modification packet.
The ACF research team studied the process the Texas Attorney General’s (AG) Office used to see if changes based on behavioral economics research could increase request rates.
The Standard Process
The AG’s office would send parents letters that told them they had the option to apply for a modification, gave them instructions on how to start the process, and included a form for the parent to fill out. Less than 30 percent responded to this outreach in spite of its benefits. The BIAS team looked for bottlenecks in the process and tried to figure out what behaviors motivated the parents to ignore the opportunity.
The BIAS team saw some potential behavioral bottlenecks in the modification application process. When inmates received envelopes with the Texas Attorney General’s return address, they may have thrown them away without even determining what was inside. For others, the form letter was not written in plain language so it may have been difficult for inmates with limited educations to understand. Still for others, the form may have been daunting. It had too many blocks to fill out and the inmates often did not have important information such as their child support case number or the custodial parent’s address. Another significant barrier was likely meeting with the prison’s law librarian to get the paperwork verified and notarized. It sometimes turned into multiple visits to ensure the paperwork was accurate and complete.
The Solutions Tested
Staff members sent a teaser postcard before the letter was mailed. The AG’s office removed its office designation from the envelopes to make them less intimidating. The staff made the form letter more readable and then printed it on colored paper to make it stand out. They included a short, four-step checklist for the parents to follow. Staff members pre-populated a section of the application so the inmate wouldn’t have to try to find the data. Finally, the office sent a reminder postcard a few weeks after the letter was delivered for those who hadn’t returned the application.
The entire effort added less than $2 per inmate for printing the postcards, purchasing the postage, and pre-populating the applications. The results were much more significant. The response rate rose from 28 percent to 39 percent!
Here at the Office of Child Support Enforcement, we’re excited to continue our studies in communications and behavioral economics. ACF awarded a new grant awarded October 1 called Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services. Five state-run child support agencies and the District of Columbia will receive portions of the nearly $4 million grant to continue to test strategies that might improve outcomes in broader child support situations.
If you would like to find out more about behavioral economics and how ACF applied the theories in this BIAS study, the information is on this webpage, Taking the First Step: Using Behavioral Economics to Help Incarcerated Parents Apply for Child Support Order Modifications.
Members of the BIAS study team also spoke at a panel discussion at a Welfare and Evaluation Research Conference recently. The video is on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRy8gxI5Mdo&list=TLQzSJxueVr71qyTz3cs5IdS5z-WQnaCxt
Kim Danek, a 2013 JHU MA Communication alumna, is a Writer/Editor at the Office of Child Support Enforcement in the Administration for Children and Families, Department of Health and Human Services. She is also a retired Army public affairs sergeant major. You can find Kim on Twitter at @KimDanek or LinkedIn, Kim Danek. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.