Behavioral Economics helped a communications campaign—Lessons from the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project

HHS & ACF logosAs 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!

Background

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 Barriers

INCARCERATED_Initial_Inverse_Postcard

Back side of teaser postcard

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

Front side of teaser postcard.

Front side of teaser postcard.

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.

Results

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!

Next Steps

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.

More Information

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

 

Danek_Kim_6X5-5Kim 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 kim.danek@acf.hhs.gov.

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3 Comments

Filed under Communication Campaign, Government

3 responses to “Behavioral Economics helped a communications campaign—Lessons from the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project

  1. sallen382014

    Dear Kim: I’m so impressed with this study because of its assessment of barriers and what in the present procedure for sign-up wasn’t working. You also used snail-mail that many of us think of as too old-fashioned. The cost per target was so low and your success rate–given how hard it is to change behavior–was phenomenal. What do you think was the hardest part in developing this campaign? Congratulations. Susan

    • Thank you! We are very happy with the results. I asked the research team your question, and here is their reply.

      The team identified two challenges particular to conducting this type of work in a prison setting:
      1. One step in the Behavioral Diagnoses and Design process described in the report is to collect qualitative and quantitative data to explore the problem and understand multiple perspectives. The research team attempts to view the process through the eyes of participants and staff to understand how these key actors perceive their actions and the choices in front of them. Due to legal and facility restrictions, it was not possible for the research team to meet with inmates to discuss their experiences in regard to applying for a modification. As a result, there may have been other bottlenecks in the modification process that were not uncovered. Ideally, the intervention would have been developed based in part on qualitative interviews and discussions with the end users.
      2. One difficulty of using snail-mail (that could also occur with other methods like e-mail) is incorrect or out-of-date addresses. Part of the reason that more parents did not respond may be due to the transitory life of inmates. During the study, 12 percent were paroled and as a result did not receive at least some of the materials, and others moved to a different facility. Even if those who were transferred to another facility eventually received the materials, the outreach was delayed, and they may have been distracted by other factors that resulted from the move.

      We’ve got several studies that will be starting up this year that are based on behavioral economics. We want to develop a similar blog once the studies have gotten underway so look for more information in the future!

  2. marion raissa

    Savvy blog post , I was fascinated by the specifics – Does anyone know if my company might be able to get access to a blank TX Form-130-U & Instructions version to fill out ?

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