A Behavioral Science Case Study

Increasing Requests for Child Support Order Modifications by Incarcerated Noncustodial Parents

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Behavioral Buzz, the quarterly newsletter of the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project, which is funded by the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation. The goal of BIAS is to adapt and apply tools from behavioral science to improve the well-being of low-income children, adults, and families. Sign up here to receive Behavioral Buzz.


Four years ago, the Texas Office of the Attorney General (OAG), which is the state’s child support enforcement agency, began mailing letters to a small number of incarcerated noncustodial parents (NCPs) with information on how to apply for a modification of their child support order. NCPs often become unable to make their monthly child support payments when they are incarcerated, and, if they do not request and obtain a downward order modification, they may leave prison with significant child support arrearages that follow them for years. Despite the clear benefits of this pilot program for NCPs, only a small percentage of incarcerated NCPs who were contacted by OAG applied for a modification. The BIAS team has partnered with OAG to determine whether the tools of behavioral economics can be used to increase the overall response rate of incarcerated NCPs, as well as the accuracy and timeliness of their application materials.
BIAS and OAG analyzed every step in the modification request process from the wording of the outreach letter and application to the actions the NCP must take within the prison to get an application notarized by a law librarian and returned to OAG by mail. The team identified several potential “bottleneck” points at which NCPs may not follow through with the process, a few of which are discussed below:

  • The NCP may receive the letter but decide not to open it. Because the NCP likely associates OAG with child support enforcement, seeing a letter from this agency may stimulate a negative affective response and the ostrich effect(the tendency to “put one’s head in the sand” and avoid undesirable information). Or, the NCP may perceive the deliberation costs in time and mental effort to be too high to fully examine the letter. 
  • The NCP may not decide to act on the letter. The letter mentions the NCP’s incarceration several times, identifying him as a prisoner rather than a parent. This increases the saliency of their prisoner identity,2 which may reduce their motivation to act.
  • The NCP may not follow through. Even if the NCP is interested in applying for a modification, he may procrastinate3 in completing the application or forget to request an appointment with the law librarian because this is not part of his everyday routine.
  • The NCP may not successfully submit the application. After the NCP attends the appointment, the law librarian may find that the application is incomplete and the NCP will need to complete the application and return it at another time. The NCP may forget to request notarization or even forget to drop the completed application in the mail.
  • The NCP may see the future when they are released from prison as too distant to plan for. NCPs may exhibit some degree of present bias — overweighing the present with respect to the future. When the projected release date is psychologically distant, the NCP may think about it abstractly, and neglect to consider the negative effects of accrued arrears.

The team has redesigned the materials that are sent to incarcerated NCPs to address these bottlenecks in ways that are informed by behavioral economics. Some of the changes include:

  • Mailing the letters in envelopes without the OAG logo.
  • Simplifying the language in the letter to make it easier to read and understand.
  • Providing a list of “Four Easy Steps” for submitting a modification request, to make the process seem non-threatening and understandable.
  • Sending a postcard before the letter and application materials to notify NCPs that information will be coming that can save them money, as well as sending a postcard after receipt of the letter to remind them to complete the application.
  • Pre-filling the application with some of the required information in order to increase the likelihood that the application will be completed correctly and reduce the need to get some information from family members or the custodial parent.
  • Reminding NCPs through the postcards and letter about how much money they are potentially losing for every month they miss out on acquiring a modification.

The BIAS team and OAG are currently conducting a random assignment study that will determine whether these changes in the application materials can lead to a change in the incarcerated NCPs’ behavior and increase the number of modification applications received by OAG.

Karlsson, Niklas, George Loewenstein, and Duane Seppi. 2009. “The Ostrich Effect: Selective Attention to Information.”Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 38, 2: 95-115.
Benjamin, Daniel J., James J. Choi, and A. Joshua Strickland. 2010. "Social Identity and Preferences." American Economic Review, 100, 4: 1913-28.
Brandimonte, Maria A., Gilles O. Einstein, and Mark A. McDaniel. 1996. Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.


Document Details

Publication Type
Issue Focus
August 2013
2013. “A Behavioral Science Case Study.” New York: MDRC.