Why is the government mailing you $2?

It’s quite unusual to open an envelope from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and find two $1 dollar bills, especially when it’s addressed to you (or “current occupant”). But this year, thousands of Americans are sharing this experience with me.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is conducting a national survey about HIV vaccines. To encourage people to go online and spend 20 to 30 minutes completing the survey, the NIH is mailing each recipient $2 in cash.

According to the letter, this taxpayer money is a “token of appreciation,” and “you can keep the money even if you decide not to take part in the survey.”

In a phone interview, the letter’s signatory, Katherine Kripke — the assistant director of the Vaccine Research Program at NIH — said the goal of the survey is “to get a sense of people’s understanding of biomedical HIV prevention research.” However, the NIH really only wants to survey African-Americans and Hispanics. Anyone who isn’t African-American or Hispanic gets bounced from the survey on the fourth question.

Rather than using available Census data to send this letter only to their preferred respondents, Kripke says they used zip code data to target predominantly African-American and Hispanic areas.

So why would a government awash in debt and deficits randomly and insecurely send cash through the mail to encourage participation in a survey by people they don’t actually want filling out the survey? Kripke says it was a decision made by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

“This recommendation came from OMB,” Kripke explained. “Our contractors didn’t want to [send cash through the mail].” The contractor is the Maryland-based NOVA Research Company.

According to OMB’s website, the project will cost taxpayers $336,666 annually and expires in 2013.

Kripke explained that her office “put a lot of thought into the incentive.” She added: “We proposed doing the incentive on the back end, but recent research showed this type of incentive is more effective, and cheaper.”

However, according to supporting documents posted by the OMB: “[T]he effects of prepaid incentives within advance letters for web-based surveys have not been widely evaluated.”

The federal government is also hoping the money isn’t stolen or tossed into the trash unopened, as mail that arrives in an unmarked envelope and is addressed to “current occupant” often is. In this case, taxpayer dollars could literally be thrown away. The U.S. Post Office often warns people not to send cash by mail.

NOVA’s executive vice president, Paul Young, told me he didn’t see any issues with security or waste, but also admitted that his team hadn’t thought of those issues. Young said security didn’t concern him: “Not at two dollars.”

When reached for comment, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s press office said Secretary Sebelius had not heard of the program in her department that randomly delivers taxpayer cash through the mail.

After researching it themselves, HHS spokesman Bill Hall responded: “Because of the enormous breadth of work across the Department, HHS does not require an intermediate approval step at the HHS level, allowing our agencies to work directly with OMB on such activities relevant to their specific programs.”

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  • tynman

    The author (as well as the posters) here seems to misunderstand the survey protocols. The researchers are targeting a particular population so there is censuring in terms of participation; the methodology they have chosen for sample frame development (zip codes) seems appropriate considering census data straight up is problematic for this purpose. There is actually quite a bit of research showing that pre-survey incentives do boost response rates and most conclude that the marginal benefits of gaining a statistically representative data set far out-weight the costs of the incentive. I am not sure what the sample size is but statistically one does not need to have more than about 400 completed surveys from the population of interest to maintain a sampling error of 3%. Assuming that there may be a 20% response rate overall (a low estimate), this means an initial sample of only 8000 or an incentive investment of $16K ($2/survey). I could be wrong on the total sample here, but if I am in the ball park, this is only about 20% of the total project budget, yet is designed to improve the quality of the data of which the whole project is based on. Pretty small amount of money in this context. Now if you disagree with the premise or need of the study in the first place that is another argument. But to critique the incentive in of itself is to misunderstand its point.

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  • bassboat

    If they want a survey that will say what they want it to say I would do it a lot cheaper and quicker. This is one of many examples of why we need much smaller government.

  • okiebroomrider

    $336,666 times 2!!! But wait, when did it START? These Progressive fools cannot do anything worthwhile, because they are always looking for ways to WASTE TAXPAYER MONEY!!
    Dear Lord, please let me keep my sanity until 2012!! They are trying their best to make us as crazy as they!!

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