NPR Interviews Quentin Palfrey on Innovative Substance Abuse Treatment Program

Photo credit: J. Tyler Franklin, WFPL

89.3 WFPL, an NPR affiliate, recently featured the Louisville Department of Metro Corrections and J-PAL North America in a radio story. The article talks about the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections’ innovative pay-for-success initiative to provide treatment to individuals with substance abuse disorders immediately upon release from jail. J-PAL North America has partnered with the Department to design an evaluation of whether the program helps former inmates stay out of jail and lead healthier lives.

J-PAL North America’s executive director Quentin Palfrey spoke to reporter Lisa Gillespie about the program’s potential to break the cycle of poverty and lower healthcare costs. “If it turns out the program works and can keep people from returning to jail, instead of paying the larger amount of incarcerating individuals, [Louisville] will pay for the cost of substance treatment,” Palfrey said.

As a winner of J-PAL’s inaugural Health Care Delivery Innovation Competition, the Louisville Department of Metro Corrections receives technical assistance from J-PAL North America staff and $50,000 toward developing a rigorous evaluation of the program. J-PAL North America hopes that the evaluation will be relevant not only to Louisville, but to cities and states nationwide who are also striving to address this challenge. The competition is a part of J-PAL North America’s United States Health Care Delivery Initiative, which supports the use of randomized evaluations to inform health policy.

Listen to the full WFPL story and read the accompanying article here. To find more about the winners of the Health Care Delivery Innovation Competition, check out the MIT Press Release and stay updated on our blog, Facebook and Twitter.

White House releases report on applying behavioral science to government policy

President Barack Obama speaks with Dr. John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and OSTP Social and Behavioral Sciences team, in the Oval Office, Jan. 30, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The White House’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team released its second report last month, and it’s worth a close read. The SBST was launched just over two years ago, and has been working to make government more effective. This might seem like quiet, behind the scenes work, but it can make a big difference when scaled up across national programs.

I’ve had the honor of working with the SBST over the past two years and have been impressed by key elements of their approach.

They test relatively small tweaks to programs, but these can add up to real changes that improve lives. Here are a few highlights:

  • A 53 percent increase in workplace savings plan enrollment rates by military service members—more than 4,800 new enrollments—and over $1 million dollars in additional savings in just one month.
  • A doubling in the rate at which student loan borrowers in default contacted default-resolution representatives.

SBST has been exemplary in how they have made research integrity a major priority.

  • They are committed to building A/B testing and random assignment into their studies. When appropriate, this can be a very valuable tool for understanding which approaches work and why.
  • They have highlighted the studies that didn’t work, too, for example in their first report. That’s a refreshingly transparent approach for both academia and government.

They have mastered the art of tapping into external resources and collaborating across agencies.

SBST has partnered with researchers from nationally recognized universities who often provide their time pro bono while getting the chance to conduct policy-relevant studies in partnership with the government. Given the close alignment of J-PAL North America’s specialization on randomized evaluations, our network of academics has been excited to partner with them on multiple studies, and our staff have collaborated from the start on knowledge sharing and best practices in designing and running studies for maximum effect. We’d especially like to congratulate Kelly Bidwell, previously a senior policy manager with J-PAL North America, for her role as one of the initial SBST members during its launch, and her leadership in building the work of SBST.

Last year, President Obama institutionalized their work by signing an executive order to make SBST permanent and directing federal agencies to include behavioral science insights in the design of their programs. I’m hopeful that their work will continue to have an impact for years to come and set the norm for how government innovates.

Job Opportunity: Communications Intern

J-PAL North America is recruiting a Communications Intern to contribute to its mission of reducing poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. The Communications Intern will support the efforts of the policy and administrative groups at J-PAL North America to ensure that important research reaches decision makers who can act on it. Responsibilities include: identifying policy windows for J-PAL to highlight research in our sectors; assisting with the maintenance of J-PAL North America’s primary social media platforms, including the website, newsletter, and social media; and supporting J-PAL North America events designed to bring policymakers, practitioners, and researchers together to spur new research collaborations.

We are looking for someone with strong organizational and communication skills and a demonstrated interest in poverty alleviation. This position is based in Cambridge, MA. It is a paid, part-time position (10-20 hours per week) during the 2016-2017 academic year. Work schedule and start and end dates are flexible.

We will review applications on a rolling basis as we receive them. For more information, see the job description and application information here.

Staff Profile: Sophie Shank

sophie_shankWhat do you do at J-PAL? As a Policy Associate, I conduct outreach to support evidence-informed policy and decision-making. I help develop research partnerships between J-PAL affiliated researchers and practitioners, and I share key results that come out of these studies.

What drew you to want to work at J-PAL? I was drawn to J-PAL when I learned about its work to rigorously evaluate and subsequently improve programs designed to reduce poverty and address social issues. I am excited about the way that J-PAL shares research results broadly in order to support policymakers, nonprofits, and other leaders in making informed decisions and effectively serving vulnerable populations.

What is your favorite place in the world that you have been? Banff National Park in Canada. I got to visit Banff this summer, and the mountains, glaciers, and vividly turquoise lakes were unbelievable.

If you had to eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be? Blueberries. I know it’s not a very practical choice, but blueberries are hands down my favorite food.

If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be? Michelle Obama.

Read Sophie’s bio on the J-PAL North America website.

The New York Times features Lawrence Katz and Raj Chetty’s housing research


Photo credit: Retro Report, The New York Times

Last week the Retro Report, a New York Times video series, featured an interview with J-PAL North America scientific director Lawrence Katz (Harvard). The article describes the evolution of Moving to Opportunity (MTO), a housing mobility demonstration program developed by the Clinton administration in the early 1990s to benefit thousands of families living in public housing projects in the highest-poverty neighborhoods of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. MTO randomly assigned some families to receive housing choice vouchers to move to higher-income neighborhoods, with the hope of improving their economic opportunities and educational outcomes.

However, the early evidence from the program showed mixed results. Families provided with opportunities to move to higher-income areas ended up being happier and healthier in the short- and medium-term, but MTO moves did not markedly improve either parents’ employment outcomes or children’s test scores.  Interest in housing mobility programs waned in the face of ambiguous initial findings. But after nearly two decades, J-PAL affiliate Raj Chetty (Stanford), Nathaniel Hendren (Harvard), and Katz have uncovered reasons for optimism. Although teenagers who relocated as part of MTO did no better on average than their counterparts who didn’t move, their younger brothers and sisters grew up to go to college at much higher rates and to earn substantially more at their future jobs than did the comparable children in the control group. “Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter,” Chetty told Retro Report. In Katz’s words, “neighborhoods and childhood development are long investments, and one has to have some patience. Most things that are investments take a while to pay off.”

Read the full New York Times article and watch the video here or check out J-PAL’s Policy Briefcase on Moving to Opportunity.  The Chetty, Hendren, and Katz study was published in the American Economic Review in 2016 and is available here.

See more media coverage of Katz and Chetty’s research on MTO:

  • This column and this column by Justin Wolfers in the New York Times Upshot
  • A “Race Matters” segment on PBS News Hour
  • A Washington Post article titled, “What’s good for poor kids isn’t bad for rich ones”

Staff Profile: Martin Aragoneses


What do you do at J-PAL? I am a research assistant for MIT Professor Amy Finkelstein. I am Amy’s lead RA working on the randomized evaluation of a program designed to encourage enrollment of low-income, elderly individuals in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as ‘food-stamps.’ I conduct real-time data processing to monitor the implementation of the intervention, and code the statistical analyses that will eventually appear in a journal article with the results of the study.

What drew you to want to work at J-PAL? I took Edward Miguel’s course during my senior year in undergrad and worked with him as a research assistant, having a first-hand experience with RCTs and other applied metrics methods, I realized I wanted to become an academic economist. After going through a very theory-heavy masters I felt I needed some more applied research exposure, so I came to Cambridge to work with Amy, who is the co-scientific director of J-PAL North America, and thus, I am here.

What is your favorite place in the world that you have been? I actually really like it here. Cambridge, MA is an awesome place to live. It has super engaging academic community, and it’s really close to Boston, which is a great city!

If you had a million dollars to donate, what would you give it to? I think adoption of digital technologies and Internet in developing areas could be a major game changer to lift communities out of poverty (if implemented well!). I’d find an NGO working on expanding digital access and I would partner with them, and run an RCT on their intervention, looking for the most cost-effective mechanisms to close ‘digital divides.’

Read Martin’s bio on the J-PAL North America website.

Staff Profile: Emma Rackstraw

What do you do at J-PAL? As a Policy Associate, I help ensure that US public policies are informed by research and encourage the production of rigorous evidence to inform those emma_rackstrawpolicies. I facilitate collaborations between policymakers at the state and local level and J-PAL affiliated researchers to design, implement, and learn from randomized evaluations, for example through the State and Local Innovation Initiative and the Health Care Delivery Initiative.

What drew you to want to work at J-PAL? Coming from the public sector, I know just how important it is for policymakers to have access to rigorous and relevant evidence on the policy issues that they care most about. I came to J-PAL North America because I want to help build the evidence base on US anti-poverty programs so that policymakers can make informed decisions about how best to improve the lives of their constituents.

What is your favorite place in the world that you have been? Tie between Ljubljana, Slovenia and Cape Town, South Africa.

If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be? Either Mozart– he’s not my favorite composer but he might be the among the more interesting composers to dine with– or John Green.

If you could buy one material thing, and money was not an issue, what would you buy? One of the incredibly beautiful historic homes in Somerville.

Read Emma’s bio on the J-PAL North America website.