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.”