Does reducing stigma increase the take-up of rental assistance?

Does reducing stigma increase the take-up of rental assistance?

Project Summary

Poverty in the United States is highly stigmatized. Counterproductively, the very programs that aim to lift people out of poverty are stigmatized over and above poverty itself, which may deter people from participating in government programs for which they are eligible. In a randomized experiment, we found that using de-stigmatizing language to describe government rental assistance–a critical antipoverty program–increased program take-up by 11% relative to status quo language. These findings suggest that subtle language changes can either reduce or reinforce the stigma associated with government programs and this, in turn, may have outsized effects on who participates.

Why is this issue important?

Housing insecurity is at the root of many social problems including poverty, homelessness, and disparities in health and education outcomes. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the housing crisis across the US, putting tens of millions of people at risk of homelessness and disproportionately impacting racial minorities and low-income households. In response, policymakers invested heavily in emergency rental assistance programs. Yet, many cities and counties struggled to spend their rental assistance funds, partly because people face many informational, logistical, and psychological barriers to participating in government programs. Reducing these barriers is essential for ensuring that critical government services reach all who are eligible.

What are we doing?

In partnership with the Denver County Department of Housing Stability and Office of Social Equity and Inclusion, we sent approximately 50,000 renters in Denver one of two postcards advertising the county’s temporary rental assistance program. About half of the renters received a postcard that offered information about the rental assistance program and how to apply, using status quo language. The other half of the renters received a postcard that offered the same information, but that used de-stigmatizing language. We then evaluated application rates for rental assistance in the two months following the mailing.

What have we learned?

Using de-stigmatizing language increased interest in the rental assistance program, as measured by requests for applications, by 18% and actual program applications by 11% compared to receiving the status quo information. Further, these effects may be larger for renters of color.

What comes next?

These findings can help inform government outreach efforts around housing assistance, as well as other antipoverty programs. We are also exploring the role of stigma as a barrier to participation in other government programs, and methods of reducing stigma both among prospective beneficiaries as well as those who are responsible for delivering government services.