By Toni-Anne Richards and Laura Wolff

At ideas42, we’ve thought a lot about how to maximize the impacts of public benefits in the lives of everyday people, especially during a pandemic. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, we’ve assisted government and non-profit agencies in making their communications about the changes to these benefits more effective. We also generated guidelines for states and retail providers that can make it easier for WIC beneficiaries to find and purchase approved items during the COVID-induced grocery shortages. These efforts are part of ideas42’s ongoing work to bolster economic justice, and are guided by principles from our Poverty Interrupted framework, with a particular emphasis on “cutting the costs” of participating in essential  services and benefit  programs.

The NYC Behavioral Design Center drew upon these insights recently when we partnered with Community Food Advocates, a policy advocacy organization, to spread the word about a new Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) food benefit, worth $420, to New York City families. P-EBT distribution in New York State already exemplifies the behaviorally informed “cutting the costs” approach by reducing barriers to public benefits. Unlike many public benefit programs, rather than requiring people to apply for assistance, the State is sending benefits proactively to all eligible families.

However, there was concern that parents might throw the card away without understanding what it was, potentially out of fear that it was part a scam, or that using it would increase their tax liability or lead to immigration-related consequences, like being deemed a public charge. Community Food Advocates was eager to ensure that these families recognized the mailing when it arrived, understood their right to this benefit, and used the funds. That was where we came in to help spread the word using behavioral insights.

Over the past few months, the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) has distributed this $420 food benefit to around 2.1 million students across the state who were eligible for free or reduced-priced meals when schools closed due to the pandemic in mid-March. The benefit amount is based on reimbursement for meals that students missed when schools moved to remote learning between March and June.  In New York City, all 1.1 million public school students received P-EBT because school meals have been free for all students since 2017 as a result of the Lunch for Learning campaign for universal free school lunch, led by Community Food Advocates.

P-EBT benefits were distributed in three waves: the first two consisted of electronic deposits onto existing EBT or Medicaid cards to families enrolled in SNAP, Public Assistance, or Medicaid. This fall, OTDA provided the P-EBT funds to families who were not enrolled in any of those benefit programs by mailing them new P-EBT cards. These recipients are primarily immigrant families who are ineligible for most other benefits, and families whose incomes are above the eligibility limit for income-linked benefits.

To ensure that recipients recognize the benefits and how to use them (and reduce the chances of them being discarded), we designed a behaviorally informed flyer with key information. Because children of immigrant parents often serve as linguistic and cultural interpreters, we created a student-facing flyer that describes the program at a level most middle and high school students could understand and use in explaining the benefit to their parents. The flyer was designed with input from a student advisory group convened by CFA.

In addition to explaining how families receive the benefit, the flyer provides information on eligible food items and participating stores, which students in the virtual design sessions expressed an interest in knowing. It also dispels common misconceptions about P-EBT that parents might be concerned about, highlighting, for example, that it requires no application and won’t affect their immigration status or tax burden.

CFA disseminated the flyer through its website, in emails to school principals, and in its newsletter to over 4500 community organizations, advocates, service providers, and others during the first week of September to coincide with the state’s mailing of the P-EBT cards.

We anticipate that CFA staff will be able to use the behavioral design strategies reflected in the flyer and other recommendations we provided in their ongoing efforts to expand access to nutritious food for all New Yorkers. We are gratified that we were able to help CFA inform NYC public school students and their families about this important food benefit. The heightened economic strain on thousands of New Yorkers created by the pandemic and related job losses makes it all the more critical to ensure that available assistance reaches all eligible people and families.