Taking on take-up

Author: Brendan Perry

In the fight against poverty, most of the attention is focused on answering the question “what works?” More specifically, what are the most effective interventions in reducing poverty and how can they be scaled? While this question is of paramount importance, the answers can only provide part of the solution. We must also ask the question “how can we connect people to what works?” Even the best of programs will have no effect if they cannot engage those who need the services the most. To reduce poverty we need to not only discover what programs work, but also learn how to increase participation, or take-up, in effective social programs.

Low take-up in social programs has long troubled service providers and researchers alike. Yet, there is limited evidence available to explain why take-up is low in social service programs, especially time-intensive programs like mentoring or case management. Existing research on low take-up in government programs has revealed three general categories of barriers to participation: information, process, and psychology (e.g. stigma).

To gain a deeper understanding about the reasons for low take-up in non-profit programs, LEO is launching a series of interviews with individuals who declined services from a social service provider. While academics and service providers have several theories about reasons for nonparticipation, LEO’s goal is to learn about this issue directly from those who were offered the services but declined to participate.

The interview initiative will be led by LEO Faculty Affiliate Marci Ybarra this winter. Ybarra is an Associate Professor in the Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin Madison with extensive experience working with organizations that aim to reduce poverty. LEO will leverage existing partnerships with nonprofit organizations to identify individuals who were offered access to social services and intensive interventions, but ultimately declined to take up the treatment. The interviews will also explore if the reasons for nonparticipation vary by different sub groups (race, ethnicity, gender, etc.).

Ybarra and the LEO research team will interview at least 60 individuals to gain deeper insight into the reasons for nonparticipation. Participants will come from at least four partner organizations: Catholic Charities Fort Worth (CCFW), NPower, Catholic Social Services of Rapid City (CSS), and Action for a Better Community (ABC). All of these organizations operate intensive programs for low-income adults aimed at increasing employment and/or education attainment. Ybarra and her team will be interviewing nonparticipants from CCFW’s Padua program, NPower’s Tech Fundamentals course, CSS’ Uplifting Parents intervention, and ABC’ s Bridges to Success service.

The goal of this initiative is to generate evidence on the drivers of low take-up into social service programs for a variety of low-income populations. Ultimately, this work will inform the design of future interventions aimed at increasing take-up across social programs. LEO plans to test newly designed interventions resulting from this work via RCT in the upcoming spring cohort. The resulting evidence will provide important answers for how to connect those in need to programs that are proven to work. λ


Ybarra and the partner organizations are formalizing partnership agreements and interview lists. Interviews will begin in December 2022. Early insights will be available in January 2023 with a full report to follow in Spring 2023.