Income Maintenance Experiments:

Need To Summarize Results and Communicate the Lessons Learned

HRD-81-46: Published: Apr 17, 1981. Publicly Released: May 21, 1981.

Additional Materials:


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

To overcome the expressed fears of congressional opponents and others that many able-bodied persons would quit, reduce, or not work in order to take full advantage of the universal guaranteed income plan, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) decided to experiment. OEO conducted a New Jersey experiment and later a rural experiment. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) undertook two other experiments. GAO reviewed various aspects of the four income maintenance experiments and focused on: (1) the need for the experiments; (2) the general design adequacy; (3) the planning, management, and results dissemination; (4) the timeliness and completeness in disclosing family dissolution results; (5) the soundness of major results; (6) the influence on policy and existing programs; and (7) the need for further experimentation. GAO reviewed the available literature and interviewed former and current OEO and HHS officials as well as economists and sociologists directly knowledgeable about the experiments and the use of their results. GAO did not review the specific experiment methodologies, the technical validity of each finding, or all possible experiment aspects and ramifications. The four experiments cost about $110 million in benefit payments and administrative, data collection, and research costs. Over half of the participating families had guaranteed incomes and were not required to work or given special job opportunities. For those who worked, the income guarantee was reduced by some percentage of their earnings.

The income maintenance experiments represent an important contribution to the social research field. The experiments demonstrated the feasibility of the experimental approach, gathered voluminous data, identified better ways to administer existing programs, and developed valuable experience about the conduct of social experiments. Many important technical and operational lessons were learned. Such experiments enable judgments about programs before significant funds have been committed, unintended social and economic consequences have resulted, and millions of lives have been affected. Although the experiments were costly, the programs tested had potential multibillion dollar price tags. Certain sampling improvements might have enhanced the experiments' results. The experiments had definite inherent limits which could affect results in indeterminable ways. There were certain weaknesses in OEO and HHS management of the experiments. There was no comprehensive plan for coordinating the four experiments and little evidence that likely end-users were systematically consulted or otherwise formally involved in the various planning stages. There were no formal agency procedures to be used by agency personnel for technical monitoring of the projects or systems for disseminating the interim and final experiment results. HHS was tardy and incomplete in disclosing the findings of family dissolution results. The experiments demonstrated the advantages of certain client reporting and payment determination techniques.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Matter: Congress, in authorizing future social research such as the experiments, should require Federal agencies to (1) prepare plans identifying end-users, user needs, and expected results; (2) set forth project monitoring and coordinating procedures, criteria, and standards by which to assess project progress and results; and (3) detail procedures for disseminating interim and final results to users and summarizing both technical results and operational lessons learned from the proposed projects.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of HHS should summarize the four experiments' results in layman's terms and distribute them to all interested and affected Federal legislators and executive branch program managers. The lessons learned about the conduct of experiments should be summarized and shared with such agencies as the Departments of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, and others planning or likely to conduct related research projects.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services


Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Oct 23, 2017

Jun 22, 2017

May 30, 2017

May 18, 2017

Mar 9, 2017

Nov 16, 2016

Nov 15, 2016

Sep 22, 2016

Sep 15, 2016

Aug 15, 2016

Looking for more? Browse all our products here