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Does Race Affect Access to Government Services? An Experiment Exploring Street-Level Bureaucrats and Access to Public Housing

January 2017


This study investigates how race impacts access to public housing by tracking responses to email inquiries sent local public housing officials using racialized names from potential White, Hispanic, and Black applicants. It analyzes how responsive and friendly bureaucrats are in their response, if bureaucrats are more friendly/responsive to members of their same racial/ethnic group, and if bureaucrats are more friendly to Black and Hispanic applicants in communities that have large minority populations. The results show there is no evidence of discrimination based on race or sex in the timeliness of responses, though they do suggest a racial bias in the friendliness of response, as inquiries from the Hispanic applicants were less likely to include a named salutation. There was little evidence to suggest that officials interact differently with members of their own racial or ethnic group. The results also show that the tone of the emails is more friendly in areas with a large minority population, more specifically in responses to Hispanic applicants.

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Policy Implications

This study suggests an overall lack of racial discrimination in responses to inquiries about public housing, which is important in assessing the implementation of public housing programs. The primary area of improvement to be drawn from this study is that officials need to be more consistent in the manner in which they address all inquiries (i.e. using named salutations for all email responses).

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