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Using Behavioral Insights to Increase Participation in Social Services Programs

A Case Study

06/2018
| Caitlin Anzelone, Justine Yu, Prabin Subedi

In 2010, the federal government launched a seven-year project called Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency, or BIAS, to explore and test the use of insights from behavioral science to improve social services programs that serve low-income and other vulnerable families. The project was sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families and led by MDRC, a social policy research firm. It was the first large-scale project to apply behavioral insights to such programs. MDRC designed and executed 15 randomized controlled trials involving nearly 100,000 clients with eight state and local agencies that engaged in the project. Each agency saw at least one behavioral intervention with a significant impact on a primary outcome of interest.

This case study is designed as a teaching guide for graduate and undergraduate students in behavioral science courses, as well as practitioners interested in this field. It is intended to help readers implement the “behavioral diagnosis and design” methodology developed by BIAS: a multistage process in which researchers analyze each step in a program’s implementation to identify possible “bottlenecks” where the program is not achieving its desired outcomes; adopt the perspective of the program’s participants to search for possible behavioral reasons for the bottlenecks; and design and evaluate behavioral interventions to address those factors. Using the example of a program that was designed to test whether a larger tax credit for single adults without children could increase employment and reduce poverty, this guide presents exercises and worksheets to allow readers to apply the concepts of behavioral science to a real-life problem.