To Better Social Policies, Listen to Beneficiaries

Family asks for help
Seth Villalobos at the San Antonio Foodbank Outreach office listens as a family left homeless by a fire discusses their needs. “You should never be too prideful to ask for assistance …” said Olivia Hernandez after the 2011 tragedy. (Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Flickr)
It’s a familiar story in American social policy: many years and large sums of money are spent on a program to alleviate poverty or improve health only to find disappointing results. Too often, the story ends with policymakers concluding that the initiative isn’t worthwhile. But these programs could become more effective by fixing a simple flaw: they are often based on incorrect assumptions about the choices and behaviors of the people they are intended to benefit. That’s the conclusion of researchers Crystal Hall, Martha Galvez and Isaac Sederbaum in a recent article for Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Before companies sell new products and services to customers, they conduct extensive market research on their customers’ needs, wants, and behaviors. But that kind of thinking has been rare in social policies and programs, especially those for poor and low-income individuals. Many programs are based on unexamined assumptions, rather than real data, about why people act the way they do. Compounding the problem, the researchers explain, is the fact that policymakers are typically more advantaged and, without even realizing it, may make faulty assumptions based on their own circumstances or outdated and inaccurate beliefs about low-income people.

Examples of the problem are everywhere. Funding for afterschool programs, healthcare, and other initiatives has been cut after evaluations showed poor results, when it turns out the intended participants never showed up because the programs didn’t provide the services they really needed or wanted. Teachers assume that low-income parents don’t attend conferences and events because they aren’t interested, whereas research shows they are hindered by many logistical challenges and valid concerns about schools. Hall and colleagues share several examples of their own, in the areas of banking, nutrition, and housing for low-income individuals.

According to the researchers, the key to dismantling faulty assumptions is using psychology and behavioral economics research to examine choices and motivations. This includes using qualitative research to ask questions such as why individuals are not currently engaging in a desired behavior like eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and whether intended beneficiaries would participate in a new program, like using a housing voucher to move to a safer neighborhood (and why or why not). That may seem like common sense, but it hasn’t been common practice. Hall and colleagues are hoping to change that, and they offer some evidence of how the approach they advocate is finding success.

One of these examples is in the area of improving nutrition and healthy eating in low-income families. Recent research has shown that the problem of poor nutrition is more complicated than the existence of “food deserts,” where residents tend to have less access to fresh produce than in higher income areas. Those studies show that low-income consumers’ choices about what to buy, and where to buy it, are influenced by cost as well as location. As a solution, a pilot program within the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program gave recipients an extra $10 weekly coupon to be used specifically for produce. An evaluation showed that participants not only ate more fruits and vegetables during the study, but continued to do so six months after the study, and the coupons, had ended.

To find more effective solutions like these, Hall, Galvez, and Sederbaum also recommend an approach called behavioral mapping. This is a process in which researchers clearly define a problem, thoroughly examine the factors driving it and potential roadblocks to the desired behavior, design interventions to target one or more of the roadblocks, and evaluate the intervention. Conducting this kind of research may take a little more time and money in the short run, but in the long run, it is likely to lead to more effective programs, a higher return on investment, and most importantly, improved life outcomes for the people that programs are intended to help.

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Suzanne Bouffard

Suzanne Bouffard is a writer with a passion for making social science research accessible to the general public. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Parents, the Harvard Education Letter, and other outlets, and she is the winner of a 2013 Solutions Journalism Network grant. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Duke University.

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