J-PAL affiliate Michael Greenstone testifies to Congress on the social cost of carbon


In February, J-PAL North America affiliate and co-chair of J-PAL’s Environment & Energy sector Michael Greenstone (University of Chicago and EPIC) testified on the social cost of carbon before the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Subcommittee on Environment, and Subcommittee on Oversight. The social cost of carbon is a measure that helps policymakers calculate the monetary costs and benefits of environmental regulations to more accurately assess the social impacts of federal policies.

In his February testimony, Greenstone noted, “Ultimately, society needs to balance the costs to our economy of mitigating climate change today with climate damages. Wishing that we did not face this tradeoff will not make it go away.” Greenstone co-led development of the social cost of carbon measure during his time as a chief economist for the White House Council of Economic Advisors. Last week the U.S. government withdrew use of the measure, which had been in effect since 2008. Read Greenstone’s testimony and the government decision, and check out randomized evaluations by J-PAL North America affiliates on effective energy conservation approaches.

High-stakes Nudges: Providing social information can affect what job you choose and keep

A single sentence at the end of an email can affect whether or not someone accepts a job—and stays at it for years to come. Lucas Coffman (Harvard), Clayton Featherstone (University of Pennsylvania), and J-PAL affiliate Judd Kessler (University of Pennsylvania) found that providing social information—in this case, the job acceptance rate of the previous year’s admitted applicants—increased the likelihood that an individual would accept a teaching job with Teach for America. Those told about the previous year’s matriculation rate were not only more likely to accept the job, but also to complete training, start the job, and return for a second year. Based on this study’s results, Teach for America has started including a line about their historical matriculation rate in all admissions letters.

Teach for America, a non-profit organization that recruits recent college graduates and professionals to teach in under-resourced public schools, sends thousands of offer letters via email to job applicants each year. To test how the provision of social information would influence an applicant’s likelihood to accept a job, the researchers added one line to the end of randomly selected job offer letters: “Last year, more than 84 percent of admitted applicants made the decision to join the corps, and I sincerely hope you join them.”

Admitted applicants who received offer letters with this sentence were 1.8 percentage points more likely to accept the position. In other words, including this information persuaded 8.4 percent of admitted applicants who would not have joined Teach for America to do so. Furthermore, the researchers found that providing social information increased matriculation by 3 to 5 percentage points among three subgroups of individuals who were likely to be “on the fence” about joining Teach for America. This means that providing social information persuaded 12 to 14 percent of “on-the-fence” admits who would not have joined Teach for America to do so. In addition, teachers who received this information also returned for their second year of teaching at higher rates, which suggests that the social information did not convince those who were likely to drop out at a later point to join the teaching program. 

Why might one simple sentence convince individuals to change their decisions? According to the researchers, information on their peers’ choices may influence admitted applicants’ opinion of the value of the Teach for America experience. For example, the high acceptance rate may signal that the program is particularly effective at improving student outcomes, or that it looks especially good on resumes.

While social information has been found to influence low-stakes decisions (e.g. donating to charity or taking an environmentally friendly action), Coffman, Featherstone, and Kessler show for the first time that social information—such as information about the previous decisions of others—can affect high-stakes behavior and do so persistently. As policymakers seek out cheap, subtle interventions to shape behavior, this study shows that providing social information can be a potentially powerful option.

Read the full paper published in the American Economic Journal here.

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.

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”

Announcing the Four Winners of Inaugural J-PAL Health Care Delivery Innovation Competition


We are delighted to announce today that J-PAL North America has selected CareOregon, Commonwealth Care Alliance, the Northeast Delta Human Services Authority and the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections as the winners of the inaugural Health Care Delivery Innovation Competition. Over the next year, we will work with these four organizations to develop randomized evaluations of innovative programs with the potential to serve as models for improving the health of vulnerable populations. The pioneering efforts of the winners touch on major public health issues: addressing the opioid epidemic, improving social determinants of health, integrating primary and behavioral health care, and engaging high-cost, high-need patients.

“We are thrilled to have the opportunity to work with these four innovative organizations to generate evidence with the potential to inform the practice of health care across the United States,” said Amy Finkelstein, the John & Jennie S. MacDonald Professor of Economics at MIT and co-Scientific Director of J-PAL North America.

CareOregon, a nonprofit health plan serving a large Medicaid population in Oregon, was selected based on its efforts to leverage a network of social service providers outside of the traditional boundaries of the health care system to improve the health of Medicaid patients. Commonwealth Care Alliance, Massachusetts care delivery system for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries with complex medical needs, is deploying financial incentives to engage some of its highest-need, but most difficult to reach patients. The Northeast Delta Human Services Authority, a quasi-governmental behavioral health care safety net provider in northeastern Louisiana, has developed an innovative integrated services network to provide integrated primary care and a range of social services to rural and low-income populations with behavioral health needs. The Louisville Metro Department of Corrections, which administers correctional facilities in Louisville, Kentucky, is designing a pay-for-success initiative to provide treatment to individuals with substance abuse disorders upon release from jail.

“Improving the care we deliver to vulnerable populations is critical to the viability of our health care system. Generating rigorous evidence of innovative programs is a key step in realizing this financial and moral imperative,” said Quentin Palfrey, Executive Director of J-PAL North America.

Read the full press release here and stay updated on our blog to learn more information about the competition winners.

The Health Care Delivery Innovation Competition is a part of J-PAL’s U.S. Health Care Delivery Initiative, which supports the randomized evaluations of strategies to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of health care in the United States. We’ll be hosting a fall conference to share the work of the initiative. Keep an eye on this blog, our Facebook page, and Twitter feed for more information.


Freakonomics episode features research by Amy Finkelstein

This week, Freakonomics Radio, the popular radio show and podcast born of New York Times bestseller Freakonomics, is broadcasting an episode featuring research by J-PAL North America Scientific Director Amy Finkelstein (MIT). In the episode, Freakonomics host Stephen Dubner interviews Dr. Finkelstein on an evaluation she conducted in partnership with Dr. Jeff Brenner, a physician and Executive Director of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers. Jeff Brenner and the Camden Coalition have developed a program that provides targeted support to healthcare “superutilizers,” the small minority of people who account for a disproportionate quantity of healthcare spending. For more information on the Camden program, as well as on Dr. Brenner, see this New Yorker article.

As well as covering Dr. Finkelstein’s collaboration with Dr. Brenner on the Camden superutilizer intervention, the podcast also discussed the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment. The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment was a large-scale randomized evaluation of Medicaid expansion led by principal investigators J-PAL affiliate Katherine Baicker (Harvard) and J-PAL North America Scientific Director Amy Finkelstein. For more information on the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, check out this J-PAL North America policy briefcase.

Included in the episode was an insightful discussion between economist Steve Levitt and host Stephen Dubner on the role of randomized evaluations, also known as randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Dr. Levitt argues that randomized experiments, when possible to conduct, help establish causality with much more certainty than other economic methods. J-PAL focuses heavily on these sorts of randomized evaluations and in fact, Freakonomics Radio has previously featured other randomized evaluations by J-PAL affiliates on four occasions:

  • An episode in December 2014 focused on a randomized evaluation of a community program designed to increase high school graduation rates, authored by J-PAL affiliate Philip Oreopoulos (University of Toronto), Robert Brown (Toronto District School Board), and Adam Lavecchia (University of Toronto).
  • A randomized evaluation of Becoming a Man, a Chicago-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy program designed to decrease youth violence and increase educational attainment. This research was conducted by J-PAL affiliate Sara Heller (University of Pennsylvania), Anuj Shah (Chicago), J-PAL affiliate Jonathan Guryan (Northwestern), J-PAL affiliate Jens Ludwig (Chicago), J-PAL affiliate Sendhil Mullainathan (Harvard), and Harold Pollack (Chicago).
  • A September 2015 episode the following week focused on a randomized evaluation of another Cognitive Behavioral Therapy program, this time directed at former child soldiers in Liberia; this study was authored by J-PAL affiliate Christopher Blattman (Chicago), Julian Jamison (World Bank and Innovations for Poverty Action), and Margaret Sheridan (Harvard and North Carolina).
  • In November 2015, the podcast highlighted a randomized evaluation of a program designed to increase parental engagement with their children in order to foster cognitive and executive function skills. This study was carried out by J-PAL affiliate Roland Fryer (Harvard), Steven Levitt (Chicago), and John List (Chicago).

The episode is airing on local public radio listings this week and available online here. For more, check out the original podcast from which content was drawn here. Enjoy!