Project Findings: Low Cost, Low Key Changes can Improve Outcomes

Work in behavioral science suggests that small changes can move people to act on personal goals. To test this approach in the realm of human services, MRDC along with sponsoring federal agencies, launched the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self Sufficiency (BIAS) program with a goal of improving both the efficiency and outcomes of programming. Small changes or “nudges” to a program that facilitate the experience for clients, for example, the simplification of an application process, personalization of correspondence, or prominently highlighting a deadline, have an influence on decisions made by current or potential program participants. These adjustments are not major design changes, rather they are low cost, easily implemented ways to change the complexities many lower income families face .

Randomized trials at participating state and local human service agencies introduced specific behavioral interventions based on a period of review and identification of “bottlenecks.” Results indicate that these small changes had a statistically significant impact on outcomes in childcare and work support (including increased attendance at meetings or appointments) and child support (including increased rate of payment).

If small changes make a difference, why are larger-scale programmatic changes (that could result in increased benefits) so difficult to negotiate and implement? Perhaps examining program design through the lens of behavioral economics, where both staff and participant benefit from improved outcomes, is the path toward innovation in the provision of human services. The full report on the BIAS project and additional information on the MRDC’s work with behavioral interventions is available on their website.


Report citation: Richburg-Hayes, Lashawn, Caitlin Anzelone, and Nadine Dechausay with Patrick Landers (2017). Nudging Change in Human Services: Final Report of the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) Project. OPRE Report 2017-23. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Overhauling the Education System – Not an If but a When?

The debate over who is to blame for the state of public education in America (the usual suspects are “unqualified” teachers, “lazy” students, “absentee” or “helicopter” parents or “all-powerful” unionsis hardly new, but it never seems to get old, especially in an election year.  New research from the Brookings Institution highlights the fact that classroom materials may have as much of an impact on student learning as teacher effectiveness. Unfortunately, while teacher effectiveness is now legislated and tied to compensation, there is little data on the overall effectiveness of the very instructional materials teachers use due to the logistics and costs associated with such a large-scale study.

Perhaps instead of micromanaging teachers, textbooks and lunches,  the thing that will bring real change is – an actual REAL CHANGE.  A paper from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation argues that secondary education in the United States should be re-conceived and rebuilt to better address variations in learning and the ineffectiveness of institutional, standardized educational opportunities.  The brief, It takes a whole society: opening up the learning landscape in the high school years by Robert Halpern of the Erikson Institute looks at the drawbacks of institutional learning, as well as examples of secondary education in other countries and how such approaches might be (and already are) implemented in American schools.  Methods to increase student engagement and practical problem-based learning while lessening the grip of traditional institutions and models (labor unions, school administration, classroom learning) include,

  • year-round youth apprenticeships,
  • quality Career-Technical Education (CTE), and
  • more and varied off–campus learning opportunities.


Would such a model result in a better educational and vocational foundation for young adults? Would the high school experience described in the paper lessen the pressure to follow it with four or more years  (at a total average cost of  $26,000-$100,000) for a Bachelors degree in order to develop talent, skills and enhance hire-ability?  Does our educational system really require a severe overhaul to better meet the needs of youth academically, socially and developmentally?


The Costs of Not Using Cost-Benefit Analysis with Crime and Justice Policy

Utilization of economic analysis to examine public policy and system operations just makes good sense, especially in this time of budget cuts, freezes and expectations for programs to do more with less.  Regardless of some of the rhetoric out there, I doubt that waste and overspending is favored by anyone. The expectation that organizations, whether they serve vulnerable populations or protect the community at large, will make sound fiscal choices is more than fair.  It only follows then that decision-making at the policy level is informed and supported by economic analyses.  After all, the well-being and safety of an individual or a community is not necessarily best served by the most costly methods.

A brief from the Institute of Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law, sets out an impressive argument for an evidence-based approach to what is, after Medicaid/Medicare and social security, considered a third rail in politics criminal justice policy. In Balanced Justice: Cost-Benefit Analysis and Criminal Justice Policy, Jennifer Rosenberg suggests that an economic analysis of current crime control and corrections policies versus alternative approaches proven to operate more effectively and lower costs would:

  • align with the trend in funder demand for evidence-based programs;
  • respond to the current movements in favor of empiricism and transparency as opposed to emotion-based messaging and political favoritism;

The brief, which details the use of economic analysis in justice policy and examples of states that have successfully adopted a cost-benefit analysis approach as part of their criminal justice planning and policy process, is available for download at the Institute of Policy Integrity website.

Record Number Receive Food Stamps

According to the article, Food stamp rolls reach historic levels by Pamela M. Prah at the website, the years of the “great recession” have seen a nationwide increase of participation in the food stamp program. Data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) show the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program (no longer providing actual stamps rather a debit-style card) operating at a 66 percent participation rate nationally with individual state participation rates ranging from 46 to 93 percent. Rates increased in several states over the past year, including Pennsylvania, where the state food stamp usage increased 11 percent between November 2009 and November 2010

Currently, SNAP assists over 43.6 million people – including children – in the United States.

While the economy appears to be slowly rebounding, and hiring by nonprofits is beginning to pick up once again, the impact of the recession continues to be felt by families across Pennsylvania and the nation. It may take years for some families to recover from the fiscal setbacks incurred during these many months.