By Gregory Porumbescu, Stephanie Walsh, and Andrea Hetling

Read Report


Means-tested public benefit programs, such as SNAP, are intricate and subject to a large number of rules and eligibility requirements. The high learning costs associated with these programs pose challenges, not just in facilitating access for eligible individuals, but also in fostering misconceptions among the broader public regarding program users, the assistance offered, and the procedures for enrollment. These misunderstandings have far-reaching implications, as they fuel negative perceptions of these programs, leading to political efforts aimed at limiting access and reducing funding.

This report investigates how efforts to reduce learning costs of means-tested public benefit programs impact public opinion of these programs and perceived deservingness of program beneficiaries. Focusing on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the United States, a well-known means-tested public benefit program, we integrate research from educational psychology with policy feedback theory, predicting that the structure of information about SNAP’s application process and eligibility requirements affects learning costs and public attitudes toward this program and its beneficiaries.

Testing these predictions through a dose-response survey experiment, participants are randomly assigned to control or one of three treatment groups, which incrementally alters the structure of SNAP information participants are exposed to. The three treatment groups consisted of an informational flyer that presented information in block paragraph format, an eligibility screener that broke the content into smaller chunks of content, and a video that uses worked examples to walk individuals through the blocks of content provided in the screener. All of the content across these different treatment groups is substantively equivalent.

The results of the survey experiment reveal those in each of the three treatment groups had significantly higher comprehension of the SNAP program than those in the control group, and that the video is more effective than either the flyer or screener. Additionally, the easier a time participants had processing information in the treatment group, the higher their level of SNAP approval, the more deserving they believed SNAP target groups were, and the more supportive they were of increasing related funding. Together, these results show that simple adjustments to how this information is conveyed to the public can play an important role in reducing learning costs. Findings inform actionable insights into steps that can be taken to improve public attitudes toward these often maligned, yet nevertheless very important, social policies.