I'll Pay You To Read This*

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

At the beginning of the school year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted an unusual program to end poverty. It's an incentive program: one that pays for good behavior. Parents can get twenty-five dollars for attending a parent-teacher conference, kids can get fifty dollars for getting a library card. It's a controversial program, but those who support it, believe that the incentives might really work. Others think it might make people living in poverty even more dependent. The question is more of a philosophical one: should we be paying people to do things they should be doing anyway? What do you think? Are incentives a good idea?

*Actually, I won't. It's public radio, people. Come on.

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It absolutely will work. And it is a good thing.
I did just that with my kids: I paid them for good grades. School was their work, and getting A and B's was good work, and they should have something to show for it. To reject payment out of hand is puritanical and unkind.
There are all sorts of problems that can come up: think about it before they happen. Think about abuse, think about people wanting more, never outgrowing it... put those limits nicely in place at the start.
My kids grew out of it, naturally. Meantime, at semesters end, when they might have bought something they wanted, and were asked about it, they could say "I got because I got 3 A's this semester, and my mom and dad reward me for spending my time this way, working at school, not taking an outside job.
Do it. Try it at least. Quick!

Sent by Gerald Berke | 1:14 PM | 9-17-2007

How about paying poor people not to have poor children?

Sent by JP | 1:27 PM | 9-17-2007

I finally had to turn off this show because the guest kept saying incentivize. Poor language usage certainly detracts from the speaker's message. Probably was a good show, too. Pity.

Sent by Gwendolyn Wilson | 1:30 PM | 9-17-2007

What is the full range of activities that you are willing to reward. A healthy diet? Physical exercise? Using second-hand furniture, clothes? How are you choosing? Are there no limits to what you will reimburse?

Sent by Richard | 1:46 PM | 9-17-2007

If good behavior is a function of socialization, then supplying a framework of beneficial social activities as well as an incentive system that helps the poor who might be otherwise forced to choose between a checkup and working more hours to make ends meet is worth a tray.

Sent by Charlie | 2:13 PM | 9-17-2007

The reasoning behind NY's school program is not pyschologically sound. Research by Nisbett and others has shown that extrinsic rewards can actually REDUCE motivation for the activity. Children should be taught intrinsic motivation for these activities. After all, what's going to happen when the children are no longer being paid for attendance etc. Research tells us they will no longer engage in the desired activity once the reinforcement is gone.

Sent by Nicole | 2:14 PM | 9-17-2007

pay people to work! to pick up litter, or per wrapper, bag or bottle like a deposit, to improve infastructure, to provide assistance to elderly neighbors with chores.

Sent by Greg Satorie | 2:17 PM | 9-17-2007

it's so basic!!! it's called conditioning. that is how we learn.
oh my. people don't so much as "learn" as become conditioned. modern society and esp poverty and removed many of those conditionings: replace them, by all means, where you can.

Sent by Gerald Berke | 2:20 PM | 9-17-2007

Ut seens to me that there is a mentality here of seeing the poor are the ones who need to be changed - "blaming the victim" . Could it be that it is also the "system" which needs to learn something? How about making employment palatable enough to want to work? How about having a fair wage rather than a minimum wage mentality? A fair wage is definitely enough of an incentive for anyone to want to study and go on.

Sent by cecilia campoverde | 2:25 PM | 9-17-2007

Pay poor people to do the right thing? Of course! Many of our poor would do the right thing if only they could afford it. For example, a single working mother might be able attend a PTA meeting if she doesn't have to work overtime that day to pay her bills. Replace her factory working wages with a similar cash incentive to allow her to attend a meeting regarding her children, and it's a no-brainer what she would do. That is hardly demeaning!

Sent by Thomas, Little Rock | 2:26 PM | 9-17-2007

I can see the value of this program. If I worked at a low paying job, I would have to weigh the cost of possibly missing work to go to a parent teacher conference and missing out on some pay.

But with this program, I can see that it would take the sting out of the pay loss. Also, of value, it may help a child not quit school so they can contribute to the family income. It certainly has potential...and since it's not yet government dollars, I see no point in not see what will happen!

Sent by Carrie Grant | 2:27 PM | 9-17-2007

I appreciate this discussion, but the content is still very narrow.
Since Education is not only a personal/private matter, but will better the Nation as a whole, higher education has to be accessable to ALL.
Examples are most of the European States where College costs about $500/yr.
But our Government does not care about this approach since they can import the Workforce from abroad and don't have to spend a Nickel on higher education.
Education has to be a right and not a previledge for the 'well' off.

Sent by Ron T. | 2:28 PM | 9-17-2007

I haven't studied all of the intricacies of this program, but my understanding of human nature and how people handle money tells me that the cash will be absorbed and disappear into families' broken household financial systems.

When I was growing up, my incentive to well in school was that I didn't want to hear my mother scream at me for hours and hours.

Her first question upon arriving home from her first job and before going to her second job was "Did you do your homework?"

The second question, demand really, was "Let me see it."

Sent by Chicago listener | 2:29 PM | 9-17-2007

It isn't enough to just offer the incentives. There needs to be support services in place that include someone who does things like calls the person and reminds them to let their employer know (in advance) that they will be absent because they are attending a parent conference meeting. Those sorts of additional supports help achieve buy-in from others in the community as well.

Sent by Carrie | 2:30 PM | 9-17-2007

I grew up in NYC in the 80s and would have loved it if my parents
could have made it to PTA meetings or taken me to the doctors.
However, they each made $50 a day and couldn't afford to take
time off from work or buy health insurance. We did not qualify for
Medicaid. This sounds like a wonderful pilot program.

Sent by Kim | 2:34 PM | 9-17-2007

This particular program appears to attempt to supplement or alter the set of incentives, economic or not, that surround the targeted people and keep them from taking action to improve their lives.

But it would make more sense, in my view, to alter the surrounding forces in totality. For example, lack of health care prevents people from holding jobs, seeking education, even from attending parent-teacher conferences. Further, the current system penalizes most the people who can least bear that penalty, i.e. the unemployed and the cash-employed. A more equitable system of health care coverage, particularly in mental health and substance abuse, would remove large barriers to economic security.

Another example is the current system of educational funding. Using property taxes to fund schools, again, penalize the poorest and reward the wealthiest.

There are many other examples.

Sent by Karl Chwe | 2:34 PM | 9-17-2007

Cash incentives will not END poverty. I do not think it can change the mentality of individuals within their homes, or the challenges they face. What it can do is give money to influence people to do things they should. I think it can be used in conjunction with information that empowers. For instance, if 100 poor people are gathered together and given information about how to save energy, how to save money, etc. I believe 50 of those individuals will benefit. The same can be said of cash incentives. Maybe half of the recipients will benefit, but it will not change the overall mentality of individuals. I agree that those that are strapped for cash do need more money and time to get things done, so it can't hurt, but it will once again not do anything to end poverty!

Sent by Lisa | 2:35 PM | 9-17-2007

"There are a hundred EXCUSES for failure...There is one Reason for Success..."

Sent by m catt | 2:39 PM | 9-17-2007

Why not pay women to use contraceptives--root cause of most poverty.

Sent by amazon | 2:40 PM | 9-17-2007

I have worked in program evaluation in social service and education. Based on that experience I worry about whether the schools and agencies concerned are ramped up to meet what their newly attentive clients or students need in order to benefit sufficiently. I hope therefore that the evaluation will also examine changes in the demands on these agencies, both financially and programmatically. And I would hope that these issues would be taken into account in judging the benefits of the incentive - if you get the client there but the services are inadequate, please don't blame the incentive concept.

Sent by Nancy Pierce | 2:45 PM | 9-17-2007

The idea of monetary incentives is not new. However, I believe this progam would best serve our communities if CHILDREN living in poverty were directly given rewards and incentives for acting responsibly through the school system. We all know that educational opportunities will often prevent poverty. In exchange for promises of educational stipends, clothing, movie, and music, and field trip coupons students would be inspired to attend classes, visit school health clinics, frequent tutoring centers, participate in extracurricular activities or special self edifying lectures,keep their grades high, and graduate, too. The highest financial rewards for female students should be for NOT getting pregnant (at least until after high school graduation!, and for males for NOT getting someone else pregnant, and of course for being drug free. If parents remain impoverished in spite of the government programs already in place for them, then at least their children must learn to be self reliant and responsible for their own actions.

Sent by Momma | 2:48 PM | 9-17-2007

The best way to prevent the next generation from being poor is to reduce the number of the next generation.

Sent by Jonpaul | 2:56 PM | 9-17-2007

This is the second time TOTN has had a story about this subject. In neither did TOTN talk to Alfie Kohn, who has been writing about the problems caused by rewarding children for their behavior for years. I recommend that you include him if you talk on this topic again.
In my own childrearing and life experience, rewards are vastly inferior to motivating behavior for its own sake. I can give concrete examples if desired. Both earlier stories made good points, but I'd still like to see more time given to advocates like Alfie Kohn.

Sent by Mary Ann Baclawski | 3:05 PM | 9-17-2007

I think Mayor Bloomberg is on to something, and would be interested to learn where he got the idea from. As an MBA student, I have been reading the classic management paper written by Steven Kerr in 1975: "On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B." The paper gives a number of examples (politics, war, etc.) of reward systems that don't work because the wrong behavior is inadvertently being rewarded. It immediately became clear to me that changes in reward systems could improve behavior in a multitude of areas, such as the unfortunate situation we presently have in our state with a number of our legislators falling from grace and succumbing to bribery and corruption. I recently surveyed a cross-section of society regarding whether an increase in legislators' modest salaries might be a first step towards reducing corruption among some members of the legislature. Almost 60% of respondents said "Yes." On the same basis, I am confident that Mayor Bloomberg's change in reward system in the form of incentives to poor people to do things that can benefit them, such as attend school, get a library card or go to the doctor will be successful.

Sent by Val Stella | 3:31 PM | 9-17-2007

Who knows if this idea will work, but as the speaker said, isn't it worth a try? One aspect of this program I really liked the sound of was the community-building that happens in the celebratory dinners with PowerPoint programs noting all of the participants' accomplishments. This goes beyond rewarding individuals for their progress in working toward certain goals; this goes toward bringing a community of people together and improving the community's ethos. Call me a dreamy-eyed optimist, but I'll bet this program yields some impressive benefits.

Bringing people together is an excellent way to help people recover. This is what all 12 step programs are based upon, and I don't think anyone can argue with their success.

Sent by Shannon (a former New Yorker now living in Salem, OR) | 3:35 PM | 9-17-2007

I truly appreciate the goals of this program and the idea of trying to set up a system that rewards good behavior.

However, the idea of the government deciding what is "good behavior" is a little bit scary. Frankly, it is also possibly insulting to the people it is trying to help. Personally, I would be a little insulted to have someone telling me what "good behavior" is.

One person mentioned she was rewarded for attending church regularly. While I see the value of attending church, there are many in this country who feel that religion is the root of much of the evil in the world. Why should their money be taken for this type of program?

The other weakness that I see is that the real skill is learning how to determine the relative priority of these behaviors. By having someone else do this for you, it takes that skill away and arguably some of your humanity.

Given that the Chicago program is non-governmental, I think it has a better chance of working. It appears that these folks are getting down in the trenches and working with people to help them improve, not just sitting in an office checking forms and approving checks. Again, I applaud their efforts. I wish them all the best.

Sent by Dave Henning, Chandler, AZ | 5:03 PM | 9-17-2007

As a teacher, I have had low-income parents who not attend parent-teacher conferences simply because they could not afford to miss pay from hourly work. Salaried parents have the luxury of flexible schedules or comp time, benefits that a janitor, welder or waitress usually does not receive. Parent teacher conferences are often scheduled at the most inconvenient time for working parents. This benefit is not a hand out - it is fair.

Sent by Beth | 6:24 PM | 9-17-2007

I was working on a task, only half paying attention, when I thought I heard Diane Clark compare encouraging low-income people to participate in activities with a long reward horizon to instilling good dental hygiene in a toddler.

I mentally rewound the tape, and yep, I'm pretty sure that's what she said.

I think programs like this miss the point that there are significant barriers to the middle class that can't just be overcome with proper motivation and willpower.

Linda Gibbs herself said, it's really hard to get parents to attend parent-teacher conferences when it means forgoing wages. Well ... duh? The parents NEED those wages to feed the family. It's not optional. How does she see the fact - parent needs to work, skips conference - and yet not seem to understand that the parent doesn't have a choice?

I agree with the caller who said the city is just throwing money at the problem without trying to understand it.

Sent by Inkiewiz | 8:23 PM | 9-17-2007

Those who reccomend birth control as a solution have never worked with this population. Poverty does not imply that these parents do not love their children. Poverty makes being a good parent very difficult.

I would suggest the incentives be based on outcomes at different levels. Also the incentives have to be easy to administer or else the cost of the administrative costs would be horrific.

Sent by reader in Missouri | 12:38 PM | 9-27-2007