Can Behavioral Economics Improve Human Services Programs? ACF’s Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) Project

The Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project, sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, is the first major opportunity to use a behavioral economics lens to look at programs that serve poor and vulnerable families in the United States.

Behavioral economics combines insights from psychology and economics to provide a more realistic portrait of human behavior than the “rational actor” model of traditional economics. Traditional economics assumes that individuals are calculated decision makers who use all available information to make the best decision possible. Behavioral economics acknowledges that human decision‐making can be imperfect and imprecise. People procrastinate, get overwhelmed by choices, miss details, lose their self‐control, and permit small changes in their environment to influence their decisions.

When BIAS was launched in 2010, there was a growing interest in applying behavioral economics to public policy. Behavioral economics principles had been shown to dramatically increase participation in 401k programs and boost organ donation rates, among other promising results. There was increasing recognition that insights from behavioral economics could be used to improve performance in programs that implicitly or explicitly were based on the traditional economics model. But there had been little work looking specifically at whether behavioral interventions could make a difference in human services programs. ACF launched BIAS to explore the question – how can behavioral insights be used to improve ACF programs and policies, and ultimately to improve the well-being of low-income and vulnerable children and families?

The BIAS project works with state and local human services programs to design and test behaviorally informed interventions to address program challenges. BIAS uses a four step process called behavioral diagnosis and design:

  1. Define the program’s challenge or problem carefully and precisely, without making presumptions about the cause of the problem or the solution to the problem
  2. Diagnose the problem by mapping out each step in the program or process and using available data to identify points in the process where there may be bottlenecks; then use behavioral economics insights to hypothesize about reasons why those bottlenecks might be occurring.
  3. Design a behavioral intervention that addresses the specific bottlenecks identified in the diagnosis phase.
  4. Test the behavioral intervention as rigorously as possible – in BIAS interventions are tested experimentally using random assignment.

A recent report from the BIAS project gives an overview of the behavioral diagnosis and design process and describes three case studies of behavioral diagnosis and design with ACF programs.

BIAS is currently working with several state and local human services programs to design and test behaviorally informed interventions, including:

  • Working with the Texas Office of the Attorney General, Child Support Division to increase the number of incarcerated noncustodial parents who apply for a modification to their child support order;
  • Working with the Franklin County (Ohio) Child Support Enforcement Agency to increase the amount and timeliness of child support payments collected;
  • Working with the Paycheck Plus – Enhanced EITC for Singles project (New York City) to increase the number of eligible participants who receive information about the program;
  • Working with the Indiana Bureau of Child Care to increase the number of parents who use child care vouchers for quality-rated child care programs and to increase on time renewal of vouchers; and
  • Working with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services to increase the number of parents who renew their child care subsidy on time.

Results from all of these pilots and more will be reported on a rolling basis beginning in summer 2014. As the project moves forward, BIAS will continue to work with public officials to design and apply behavioral interventions in ACF program areas, learning and sharing more about the promise of behavioral economics for improving outcomes in public programs.

The BIAS Project is being conducted by MDRC for the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For more information see