Benefits Data Trust

To test neoclassical and behavioral accounts of government benefits uptake by running a randomized controlled experiment on food stamp program enrollment procedures

  • Amount $330,526
  • City Philadelphia, PA
  • Investigator Matthew Notowidigdo
  • Initiative Behavioral Economics and Household Finance (BEHF)
  • Year 2015
  • Program Research
  • Sub-program Economic Institutions, Behavior, & Performance

People eligible for government benefits do not always make use of them. This goes for everything from health insurance subsidies to federal weatherization incentives to tax breaks for retirement savings to student loan forgiveness plans. For social scientists, particularly behavioral economists, the underutilization of such benefits is a vexing puzzle. Working with the Benefits Data Trust, Matt Notowidigdo of Northwestern has secured records and permissions to run a randomized controlled trial on the uptake of benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Although there have been studies of SNAP before, none have been randomized controlled trials. The study calls for over 30,000 eligible seniors to be slated by chance for one of three treatments: the control group gets nothing special; a “low touch” group will receive information about enrolling; and the “high touch” group will also receive assistance with preparing the necessary paperwork. Researchers will then analyze the collected data about who actually enrolls. Funds from this grant will support Notowidigdo and his team in executing the experiment and analyzing the results. None of Notowidigdo’s efforts aim to address potentially ideological questions about the existence or generosity of SNAP or social welfare programs in general. Rather, the aim is to generate empirical economic evidence that will help economists test different theories about what factors drive uptake of social safety net programs and how such programs can be administered effectively and efficiently.

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