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Taking the First Step: Using Behavioral Economics to Help Incarcerated Parents Apply for Child Support Order Modifications

October 7, 2014 Comments off

Taking the First Step: Using Behavioral Economics to Help Incarcerated Parents Apply for Child Support Order Modifications
Source: MDRC

The Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project, sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the first major opportunity to apply a behavioral economics lens to programs that serve poor and vulnerable families in the United States. Led by MDRC, the project applies behavioral insights to issues related to the operations, implementation, structure, and efficacy of selected social service programs and policies, with the goal of learning how tools from behavioral science can be used to deliver programs more effectively and, ultimately, to improve the well-being of low-income children, adults, and families.

This report presents findings from a behavioral intervention designed to increase the number of incarcerated noncustodial parents in Texas who apply for modifications to reduce the amount of their child support orders. Incarcerated noncustodial parents have a limited ability to pay their child support orders each month, due to their incarceration, which can lead to the accumulation of significant child support debt. The Texas Office of the Attorney General’s (OAG’s) Child Support Division operates a program that contacts incarcerated noncustodial parents via mail, informs them of the option to apply for order modifications, and provides instructions on how to begin the process. In the past, less than one-third of contacted parents responded to the outreach and applied for a modification — less than expected, given the benefits they gain from modifying their orders.

The BIAS project diagnosed bottlenecks in the application process, hypothesized behavioral reasons for the bottlenecks, and designed behaviorally informed changes to the mailing sent to incarcerated noncustodial parents. It revised the letter to make it more readable, printed it on blue paper so that it would stand out, pre-populated a section of the application, and sent a postcard before the letter was sent and another postcard following the letter to those who had not responded. While this was a low-cost effort (less than $2 per person), the revised outreach increased the application response rate to 39 percent, an 11 percentage point increase over the control group’s response rate of roughly 28 percent. Program administrators hope that this is an important first step in a causal chain hypothesized to reduce child support arrears owed, leading, in turn, to an increase in the likelihood that, on release, parents will support their children.

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Paycheck Plus: A New Antipoverty Strategy for Single Adults

May 27, 2014 Comments off

Paycheck Plus: A New Antipoverty Strategy for Single Adults
Source: MDRC

Over the past several decades, workers with college degrees have seen their wages rise substantially, in tandem with the nation’s economic growth. However, wages for less-skilled workers, specifically those without a college education, have followed a dramatically different course. Many less-educated workers have faced increasing hardship as their wages stagnated over the past 30 years and some — particularly men — have seen their earnings fall sharply. This decline in the payoff to work has reduced employment and contributed to persistently high poverty rates and growing economic inequality. The federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) supplements the earnings of low-wage workers and has become one of the nation’s most effective antipoverty programs. However, because most of its benefits go to low-income workers with children, it only reaches a minority of low-wage workers. Although low-income workers without dependent children are eligible for the EITC, benefits for this group are nominal in comparison with those received by families with children.

This brief describes Paycheck Plus, a pathbreaking demonstration project testing a new EITC-like earnings supplement for low-income single adults that aims to improve their economic circumstances while promoting employment. The project recently completed its first milestone, recruiting and enrolling over 6,000 individuals, with half assigned at random to a program group eligible for the supplement and the other half assigned to a control group not eligible for the supplement. MDRC will follow both the program and control groups for several years, to assess the supplement’s effects on economic well-being, work, and other outcomes. Funded by New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) and the Robin Hood Foundation and managed by MDRC, the project is a direct response to the downward trend in employment, wages, and earnings among New York’s and the nation’s least-skilled workers. Paycheck Plus could serve as a national model and add to the current bipartisan discussion about supporting low-wage work, increasing the minimum wage, and expanding the EITC.

Encouraging Low- and Moderate-Income Tax Filers to Save

April 16, 2014 Comments off

Encouraging Low- and Moderate-Income Tax Filers to Save
Source: MDRC

SaveUSA, a voluntary program launched in 2011 in four cities (New York City, Tulsa, San Antonio, and Newark), encourages low- and moderate-income individuals to set aside money from their tax refund for savings. Tax filers at participating Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites can directly deposit all or a portion of their tax refund into a special savings account, set up by a bank or credit union, and pledge to save between $200 and $1,000 of their deposit for about a year. Money can be withdrawn from SaveUSA accounts at any time and for any purpose, but only those who maintain their initially pledged savings amount throughout a full year receive a 50 percent match on that amount. Account holders, irrespective of match receipt, can deposit tax refund dollars in subsequent years and become eligible to receive additional savings matches on their new tax refund deposits.

This report presents findings on SaveUSA’s implementation in all four cities and its early effects on savings and other financial outcomes in two cities: New York City and Tulsa. In these latter cities, a randomly selected half of the tax filers who were interested in SaveUSA in 2011 could open accounts (the “SaveUSA group”), but the other half could not (the control group). The report compares the savings and other financial behaviors of the two groups over time to estimate SaveUSA’s effects. The findings thus suggest the effects that savings policies structured similarly to SaveUSA might have.

Beyond the GED: Promising Models for Moving High School Dropouts to College

February 7, 2014 Comments off

Beyond the GED: Promising Models for Moving High School Dropouts to College
Source: MDRC

Nearly 39 million adults in the United States do not have a high school diploma. Roughly two-thirds of them eventually obtain a high school equivalency credential like the General Educational Development (GED) certificate, with the hope of then obtaining a job. But in today’s changing economy, possessing a GED certificate ― while helpful for finding employment ― often isn’t enough, and many GED recipients will continue to struggle in the labor market. Postsecondary education is also helpful to improve their employment prospects, but fewer than 5 percent of GED recipients go on to enroll in college or other adult education programs.

Emphasizing results from quasi-experimental and experimental research, this literature review identifies the most promising approaches for increasing dropouts’ rate of attaining a GED certificate or other high school credential and making a successful transition to college. The report divides these recent interventions into three primary types of adult education reforms: (1) efforts to increase the rigor of adult education instruction and the standards for achieving a credential; (2) GED-to-college “bridge” programs, which integrate academic preparation with increased supports for students’ transition to college; and (3) interventions that allow students to enroll in college while studying to earn a high school credential.

The Impact of Family Involvement on the Education of Children Ages 3 to 8

November 13, 2013 Comments off

The Impact of Family Involvement on the Education of Children Ages 3 to 8
Source: MDRC

This report summarizes research conducted primarily over the past 10 years on how families’ involvement in children’s learning and development through activities at home and at school affects the literacy, mathematics, and social-emotional skills of children ages 3 to 8. A total of 95 studies of family involvement are reviewed. These include both descriptive, nonintervention studies of the actions families take at home and at school and intervention studies of practices that guide families to conduct activities that strengthen young children’s literacy and math learning.

Reconnecting Disconnected Young Adults

October 29, 2013 Comments off

Reconnecting Disconnected Young Adults
Source: MDRC

In the United States, 1.6 million young people between 18 and 24 years old are out of school (lacking either a high school degree or General Educational Development certificate) and out of work. These “disconnected” young people face significant barriers to economic opportunity and distressingly high odds of becoming involved with the criminal justice system.

Project Rise, a program currently operating as part of New York City’s Social Innovation Fund initiative, seeks to reconnect these young people with education, work, and social support as a pathway to a brighter future. A distinctive feature of Project Rise is that participants are offered paid internships if they maintain satisfactory attendance in the program’s education component.

This policy brief provides early lessons from Project Rise, including that:

  • Enrolling participants in a series of groups (or cohorts) can promote bonding among them through a combination of peer support and peer pressure.
  • Surprisingly, participants appear to value the program’s education component more than they value the offer of a part-time paid internship.
  • Given the challenges of engaging disconnected young people for the full duration of the program, it is important to respond flexibly to participants’ barriers and strengths.

These lessons and others that will emerge from the Project Rise implementation research can inform federal, state, and local policies for disconnected young people.

Promoting College Match for Low-Income Students

October 2, 2013 Comments off

Promoting College Match for Low-Income Students
Source: MDRC

Most high school reform efforts understandably fo­cus on boosting the success of low-income students who are underachieving academi­cally, aiming to help them graduate ready for the rigors of college. But in every school dis­trict where students struggle, there are aca­demically capable low-income and minority students who do graduate from high school and are well prepared for college. Yet each year, many of these students choose to at­tend nonselective four-year colleges where graduation rates are distressingly low. Oth­ers enroll at two-year colleges, where degree completion and transfer rates are even low­er. Many more do not attend college at all.

This phenomenon — called “undermatching” — was first examined by Melissa Roderick and her colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson confirmed that students are more likely to graduate college when they at­tend the most academically demanding insti­tution that will admit them. More recently, a study by Caroline Hoxby and her colleagues gained popular attention for demonstrating that it was possible to increase the rate at which very high-achieving, low-income stu­dents enrolled in the most selective colleges and universities by providing them with tai­lored information about opportunities there.

In 2010, MDRC and its partners pilot-tested an innovative advising program, College Match, in three Chicago public high schools. It took on the undermatch challenge directly by delivering crucial information to help a broad range of academically qualified stu­dents and their parents make thoughtful decisions about college enrollment. College Match has now expanded to New York City. This practitioner brief presents practical lessons from the College Match Program in Chicago. It offers five strategies that show promise, that could be widely applicable, that counselors and advisers can integrate into their existing college guidance activi­ties, and that can be implemented in college advising settings in and out of schools.

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