Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency Project


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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Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The BIAS project consisted of four phases. In the first phase, the team engaged in knowledge development to inform the application of behavioral principles to programs and populations served by the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF). In the second phase, a peer learning practicum brought together policymakers, program administrators, other ACF stakeholders, and behavioral experts to jointly study ways behavioral concepts might be applied to human services programs. Insights and applications generated from these first two phases are described in the report Behavioral Economics and Social Policy: Designing Innovative Solutions for Programs Supported by the Administration for Children and Families.

In the third phase, the team conducted on-the-ground pilots to refine the project’s research methodology and apply behavioral insights to several human services agencies. The fourth phase of the project consisted of additional applications of behavioral science and random-assignment tests of designed interventions. Findings from these 15 studies are reported in a series of site reports. Those findings will also be synthesized in a report scheduled for release in early 2017, Nudging Change in Human Services: Final Report of the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) Project.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The first two phases of the project involved substantial engagement with the major stakeholders. The remaining phases have included work with various ACF client populations and programs in order to conduct 15 evaluations in three main domain areas: child care, child support, and work support. The effectiveness of each intervention was determined using a random assignment research design. Administrative records from the programs will be the primary data sources for these evaluations. Findings from these studies are reported in a series of site reports.