Deadlines. The word itself sparks anxiety. When deadlines are about something like renewing your eligibility for public assistance, the stakes are high. To help families navigate the process of renewing their eligibility for vital government supports, we tested reminder letters. Rather than focusing on long, regulated language, we designed the letters using user-centered design and behavioral science. The letters were sent to District residents in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The letters increased the number of families who renewed their eligibility by 14%. Based on these findings, the Department of Human Services (DHS) has started sending these reminder letters as part of their standard business process.
Why is this issue important in DC?
In 2017, almost 14,500 households in DC participated in TANF. Having these resources in their homes is directly related to the general well-being of both adults and children. When it came time to renew their eligibility, only a third of those households completed the required process. That meant that two thirds of families lost financial benefits and important household resources. Many of those households were still eligible for benefits but lost them because they did not complete the renewal process.
What did we do?
Previous studies have found that a simple letter, designed with insights from behavioral science, makes it more likely that TANF customers respond to a call for action - like renewing benefits. The Lab and DHS worked together to design and send an additional letter to families who were due to renew their eligibility. It was designed to be easy to understand, with planning prompts to mitigate peoples’ tendencies to procrastinate or avoid complex processes.
We randomly assigned 3,539 TANF households, who were nearing recertification in July through November 2017, to either receive the standard DHS renewal notices or those notices as well as a reminder letter. Then, we used DHS administrative data to track which customers completed the renewal process.
What have we learned?
Forty-six percent of families who were sent letters (in addition to the standard notices) completed the renewal process on-time—14% more than those sent just the standard notices. Based on this finding, we calculated that sending these supplemental letters to all TANF customers could result in an additional 766 families each year keeping their benefits.
What comes next?
In February 2018, DHS started sending the reminder letter to all TANF customers as part of their standard business process. Further, DHS has implemented similar eligibility renewal reminder letters for the 70,000 DC households in the Supplemental Assistance for Needy Families (SNAP) program. This means that more households are retaining their benefits than ever before.
What happened behind the scenes?
To see if changing how we talked about the renewal deadline mattered, we designed two versions of the TANF reminder letter: one with a specific date for the clients to visit DHS to recertify and the other asked them to pick their own date before their official deadline. Letting customers pick what day led more to renew than did suggesting a date to them, but we cannot be sure that the difference is due to which letter we sent or simply due to chance.
For more, listen to our Podcast @ DC on this project: