Many social programs are designed in such a way that individuals must make active decisions and go through a series of steps in order to benefit from them. They must decide which programs to apply to or participate in, complete forms, attend meetings, show proof of eligibility, and arrange travel and child care. Program designers often assume that individuals will carefully consider options, analyze details, and make decisions that maximize their well-being. But over the past thirty years, innovative research — much of it in the area of “behavioral science” — has shown that human decision-making is often imperfect and imprecise. People — clients and program administrators alike — procrastinate, get overwhelmed by choices, miss details, lose their self-control, rely on mental shortcuts, and permit small changes in the environment to influence their decisions. As a result, programs and participants may not always achieve the goals they set for themselves.
The Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project, sponsored by the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was the first major opportunity to apply a behavioral research lens to human services programs that serve poor families in the United States. The project, led by MDRC in partnership with behavioral science experts across the United States and MEF Associates, applied behavioral insights to the operations, implementation, and structure of social service programs and policies in an attempt to improve their efficacy.
Between 2012 and 2015, 15 state and local agencies participated in the project, and the team launched 15 tests of behavioral interventions — involving close to 100,000 clients — with eight of these agencies. These tests spanned three domains: child support, child care, and work support. All BIAS sites achieved a statistically significant impact on at least one primary outcome of interest. The magnitude of the improvements typically ranged from 3 to 5 percentage points (in line with other behavioral research findings) — but impacts at 4 of the 8 agencies were much larger. The costs for the interventions ranged from $0.50 per person to $10.46 per person.
The BIAS project initiated a larger research agenda at the Administration for Children and Families and MDRC. The Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services (BICS) project is furthering the application of behavioral insights to child support contexts by developing promising behavioral interventions and building a culture of regular, rapid-cycle evaluation and critical inquiry within the child support community. The BIAS-Next Generation initiative is expanding the use of behavioral science to a wider range of ACF programs, going beyond testing simple “nudges” to include more implementation research and developing tools to help program administrators and operators apply lessons from behavioral science to their work. To manage these projects and similar initiatives, MDRC launched the Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS). CABS trains and provides technical assistance to practitioners incorporating behavioral insights into programs and conducts rigorous evaluations to increase the evidence base in social and education policy.
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