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This Is Your Brain on Poverty: The Default Choice

Automatic enrollment in a non-profit food program keeps more kids from going hungry on the weekends.
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Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of Pacific Standard as a sidebar to "This Is Your Brain on Poverty."

In Germany, the percentage of people who have registered as organ donors is about 12 percent. In the country right next door — Austria — the rate is nearly 100 percent. The difference is not, as one might imagine, some major cultural or religious divergence. It’s that, in Austria, you are automatically an organ donor unless you opt out. In Germany, you have to opt in.

Behavioral research shows that we are naturally inclined to go with the default choice. This finding is helping a program in Gillette, Wyoming, keep more kids in need from going hungry on weekends.

Every Friday afternoon, more than 80 students at Prairie Wind Elementary climb onto their school buses with their backpacks filled with granola bars, mac-and-cheese, fruit cups, ravioli, and apples. While these kids depend on free or reduced-price school lunch during the week, these bags of food, provided by the non-profit Blessings in a Backpack, are lunch for the weekend.

From the standpoint of mental bandwidth, the program is nearly ideal. Working parents need not juggle work schedules to make it to a food pantry that’s only open on Saturdays, or fight the embarrassment of publicly admitting their need for help. Even if the family car breaks down, the food still gets home.

And since every family on reduced-price lunch is automatically signed up and has to opt out if they’re not interested, the program reaches everyone that needs it.

“The goal is to maximize the number of eligible kids that get to experience the benefits of the program, and this design accomplishes that task well,” says Richard H. Thaler, the University of Chicago professor widely recognized as one of the founding fathers of behavioral economics. “We know such concepts work from our experience with pension plans” — when the default option is automatic sign-up, more people participate.