NPR Planet Money, The Limits Of Nudging: Why Can't California Get People To Take Free Money?:
The Earned Income Tax Credit supplements incomes through the tax code, awarding thousands of dollars each year primarily to low-wage workers with kids. But there's a problem: a huge population of eligible workers fails to file their taxes and get the money each year.
Several years ago, the state of California established their own state EITC (CalEITC) on top of the federal one. Depending on how many kids they have and how much they earn, a Californian who files for both the state and federal credit can get upwards of $6,000. For the poorest households with kids, those tax credits could almost double their household income. There's a lot of money on the table to help the most at-risk families in the state, and California policymakers have grown concerned about the large number of eligible workers failing to file taxes and claim their credits.
In 2018, the state of California and the California Policy Lab, an interdisciplinary think tank of scholars from various University of California schools, started trying to solve this problem, and they commissioned one of the most fascinating experiments in "nudging" we've seen in a while.
Nudges are simple, low-cost interventions aimed at gently guiding people to make better decisions. For example, making retirement plans the default option when you join a job, which has been shown to significantly increase the likelihood you save more for retirement. The California Policy Lab and its partners decided it would try and nudge workers to claim the EITC by sending them letters and text messages. The solution seemed like a no brainer: inform people how they can get free money, and they'll get that free money! If only it were that simple.
The researchers conducted field experiments for two years on over a million Californians. They randomly divided them into treatment groups, which received various types of messages, and a control group, which received no message. ...
"We found a very precise zero effect," says Elizabeth Linos, a behavioral scientist at UC Berkeley who was also behind the study. Many of those who received the messages, she says, did visit the website advertised in the messages to help them sign up for the EITC. But in the end, they didn't fill out the forms to receive their credit. They turned down free money. "We weren't able to increase the rate at which people file for taxes and we weren't able to increase the number of households that claim the EITC," Linos says.
This experiment might seem like a gigantic failure for behavioral economics and the theory of nudging. But both researchers believe their findings support the broader idea that people aren't the perfectly calculating, error-free creatures of traditional economic models. They're turning down free money — even after they're informed they can get free money.