COVID-19 has exacerbated long standing structural inequities disproportionately harming low-income households and communities of color, not only in terms of health outcomes but also in terms of key social outcomes (McConnell, 2012; CDC, 2020; Godoy & Wood, 2020). A large literature on administrative burden suggests that the most vulnerable residents may face learning, compliance, and psychological costs that prevent them from enrolling in government assistance programs. In a large field experiment, researchers tested whether targeting the stigma associated with a temporary rental assistance program increased take-up among low-income households impacted by Covid-19.
62,529 renter households in 56 priority neighborhoods in Denver, CO were randomly assigned to receive one of two behaviorally informed mailers about a temporary rental and utility assistance program: 1) an “Information Only” mailer that provided clear and simple information about program eligibility and steps for participation, or 2) a “De-stigmatizing” mailer which included the same content as the Information Only mailer, as well as additional text emphasizing that COVID-19 has been difficult for Denver residents, it is no one’s fault if they need extra help to get through these extraordinary times, and the application process is fair and objective. The research team analyzed the effect of being assigned to one of the mailer groups or receiving no communication (control group) on two primary outcomes: 1) requests for rental assistance applications, and 2) submitted applications for rental assistance.
Results and Policy Lessons
Renters sent the Information Only mailer were 56% (0.5 pp) more likely to request an application for rental assistance than renters who did not receive any communication as part of the study. However, the Information Only mailer did not significantly increase completed applications relative to those who received no communication. Notably, renters sent the De-stigmatizing mailer were 89% more likely to request an application and were 40% more likely to complete and submit an application for rental assistance than renters who did not receive any communication.
Further, the researchers found that the De-stigmatizing postcard also led to a higher proportion of applications from Black/African-American and Hispanic residents. Among households in the no-communication control group, just 5% of completed applications were submitted by Black/African-American renters, compared to 16% of completed applications in the Information Only group, and 26% of completed applications in the De-stigmatizing group. The researchers found a similar pattern in applications from Hispanic residents. These results suggest that reducing the stigma associated with participating in government benefit programs may be an effective strategy for increasing take-up among low-income populations, perhaps especially among racial and ethnic minorities.
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