Using Concepts from the Field of Cognitive Science to Improve Self-Sufficiency Programs

Blog Post
June 4, 2014

Maya Brennan with the Center for Housing Policy has published a fascinating new report entitled “Strengthening Economic Self-Sufficiency Programs: How Housing Authorities Can Use Behavioral and Cognitive Science to Improve Programs.” Brennan uses concepts from the fields of behavioral and cognitive science to evaluate strategies public housing authorities (PHAs) and other providers of housing assistance can utilize to better support their low-income participants. This work has the potential to improve the efficacy of programs designed to support increased earnings and broader upward mobility for recipients of housing assistance.
Research from the field of cognitive science helps explain the ways that experiences with “frequent or extended episodes of poverty, trauma, and social bias” affect the decision-making, long-term planning, and other abilities of families receiving rental assistance. Incorporating an awareness of this dynamic into program design at the PHA level therefore can help families participating in programs accomplish their goals and achieve self-sufficiency.
Specifically, the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) Program is well-situated to tackle these issues because it has design elements that already reflect an understanding of what kind of support is needed to help families get on track. For example, Brennan identifies the voluntary nature of FSS as critical to helping participants feel in charge of their experience in the program. Furthermore, “screening and preparation empower residents to understand that they have the capacity to make decisions that can make a difference in their lives.”
However, other elements of the program may require some modification or careful thought around implementation to better respond to the needs of participants. The FSS program relies on coordinators to support quite large caseloads, which means that the people in those roles may not be able to provide the degree of support needed.
This is consistent with the research I’ve done with FSS program coordinators and participants. As one FSS participant told me recently, “they don’t have enough staff to provide all the support that all these families need so they kind of provide general support. Like, they do these tri-monthly workshops and they also send out these emails when they find out about job fairs. But as far as individualized help, it’s kind of lacking in that area.” Unfortunately, this is a challenge across many programs. But worrisomely, such constraints, whether attributable to program design or its funding level, may mean that coordinators inadvertently trigger a stress response in participants. Similarly, a unilateral focus on compliance with program rules or a failure on the part of the coordinator to communicate clearly about how the escrow account works could also hamper the program’s ability to mitigate the significant stress of economic instability for participants. Based on an assessment of these issues, Brennan suggests a coaching model might work better in the FSS context to inspire participants and help them move toward their goals. 

One example of that model in practice can be seen through the work of Compass Working Capital, a non-profit organization using a financial coaching model with FSS programs in the Boston area. Director Sherry Riva published a piece in the spring edition of a Boston Federal Reserve publication that gives a comprehensive overview of their model and its outcomes: “Compass financial coaches provide rigorous and data-driven coaching for FSS participants to help them become financially secure. Workshops led by volunteer financial-services professionals help participants establish skills, confidence, aspirations, and practices that are predictive of future financial well-being.”  
By connecting the dots between principles from the field of cognitive science to the work of programs promoting economic security and upward mobility, Brennan’s paper is an important contribution to the research and will serve as a valuable resource for other researchers, policy makers, and those designing programs at the PHA level. Check out the full paper here and learn more about efforts to strengthen housing and asset-oriented programs such as FSS.