Nudging benefits access in the right direction

| By: Ryan Lauko

Multiple studies have found that 20 percent or more of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients lose assistance for procedural reasons, like not submitting a form or completing an interview by a required deadline, and then have to reapply for SNAP. This “churn” imposes costs on both SNAP participants and the states and localities that administer the program.

To reduce churn, Benefits Data Trust (BDT) has partnered with the New York City Department of Social Services and the Robin Hood Foundation to engage in a low-cost strategy to help SNAP recipients in New York City successfully complete the annual recertification process required to stay on the benefit. The strategy sends targeted text messages to “nudge” recipients at the right time, with the right information, to help them through the recertification process. Since it was launched in 2017, this “guardrails” strategy has helped thousands of New Yorkers successfully recertify, and it has done it at one-third the normal cost of helping them re-apply after losing SNAP.

This guardrails strategy was informed by the work of behavioral economists like Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, authors of “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much,” who documented the impact of limited resources and the economic pressures competing for a low-income household’s attention. They, along with other researchers, have shown that well-crafted, well-timed nudges can help people act in their best interests.

BDT initially collaborated with Duke University’s Common Cents Lab to develop compelling one-way messages tailored to each recipient’s progress during the recertification process, taking into account scheduled agency notices and deadlines. Then with funding from a SNAP Process and Technology Improvement Grant from the USDA, BDT’s software engineers designed an innovative dynamic texting system that enables two-way communication. Recipients are now able to indicate where they are struggling in the SNAP recertification process, and based on their responses are directed toward resources like their local county assistance office. When they complete a step, they can reply “DONE” and immediately receive instructions for the next step in the process.

BDT also integrated feedback and texting guidance from behavioral experts at ideas42. Two key behavioral economics insights that BDT integrated into its nudges are planning and loss aversion. Research shows that individuals who make a plan to take an action are more likely to follow through with that action. It has also shown that people have a greater tendency to avoid losses than to pursue gains.

With these findings in mind, BDT’s nudges contain simple instructions encouraging individuals to select a time to complete a required action in the earliest stages of the recertification process. As the recertification deadline approaches, the messages are more urgently worded and emphasize loss aversion (e.g., “to avoid losing your benefits next month…,” “time is running out,” or “last chance”). In the final 30 days of the recertification period, the system offers a toll free number to connect directly with BDT. When individuals call BDT, they are guided through the SNAP recertification process by a trained Benefits Outreach Specialist, who can also submit required forms for them electronically.

nudge diagram

BDT is learning more each day about assisting individuals using its new behaviorally-informed texting tool, and will apply what we learn to work in other states and programs– from connecting parents to WIC benefits to reminding seniors when it is time to file their property tax rebate forms. If you or your organization is interested in leveraging these tools to assist individuals and families, please connect with us.

The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or imply an endorsement by the U.S. Government.