Can Cities Bribe Citizens To Behave Well?
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, it's time to play ball. With President Obama throwing out the first pitch at today's Washington Nationals home opener, we explore the journey that many current baseball stars make from the Dominican Republic to the major leagues. That conversation in a few minutes.
But first, we want to talk about a bold experiment aimed at fighting poverty. Three years ago, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pulled together private funds to launch a program to dole out cash to low income families in exchange for building habits that could break the cycle of poverty: getting medical checkups, getting a bank account, maintaining full-time work, getting to children to school on time consistently and to pass exams.
The program is called Opportunity New York City Family Rewards. It's the first of its kind to be implemented in the U.S. on a sizeable scale. Supporters say it is exactly the kind of practical thinking that's needed to jumpstart the fight against poverty. But critics have called it insulting, and yet more blame-the-poorism. The debate surrounding Family Rewards was renewed last week when report on the program was released.
We wanted to know more about this, so we've called James Riccio from the MDRC. That's the social policy research group that directed the evaluation of the program, and he joins us now on the phone from New York. Welcome, thank you so much for speaking to us.
Mr. JAMES RICCIO (Director, Low-Wage Workers and Communities Policy Area, MDRC): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: What's the premise there? Is the premise that poverty is behavioral or is the premise that the financial incentives just aren't there to operate differently?
Mr. RICCIO: Well, it could be a combination of factors. It may be that families face certain opportunity costs, have certain impediments to provide their children with the kinds of support they need, and the money can be the extra money can be a resource to help them address those kinds of impediments. And in other cases, it might be an extra inducement for families - families who, for example, are reluctant to go to the dentist or have difficulty paying for the dentist. The reward payment may induce them to take a step that they might not otherwise take.
MARTIN: Okay. So, what did you find out?
Mr. RICCIO: We're still part way through. But we are seeing some encouraging results so far. In the short term, the main goal of the program was to get more resources to families on this conditional basis. For example, there's been a reduction in the likelihood that families don't have enough food. There's been a reduction in the likelihood that they can't make ends meet. There's been an increase in their savings and employment domains.
MARTIN: I'm looking at a report by your group, the MDRC. It says that, as you just said, it reduced current poverty and hardship, including hunger and some health care and housing hardships. But apparently it did not improve - and I assume that this is a disappointment - it didn't improve school outcomes overall for elementary or middle school students. It didn't increase attendance.
So, it's a I guess what would you say? It's a half glass full, half empty story? How would you characterize it?
Mr. RICCIO: Well, there are a lot of positive effects and a lot of outcomes. But on the education outcomes, we see a different story for high school students and for elementary and middle school students. For the elementary and middle school students, attendance rates were already high higher than we anticipated, in fact. And the program did not increase them further.
And we had a very narrow measurement of school effects. We looked at the performance of students on standardized math and English exams. And we have not yet seen an effect there. We will be looking at those results for one more year, so we might see some change over time. We have some results, though, that show some increase in the program groups' engagement in school-related activities and in programs that are designed to help with homework and schoolwork.
And so there seems to be some movement of greater investment in school-related activities, maybe more engagement in school that might have some payoff in the longer term.
MARTIN: But what would you say, Mr. Riccio, to those who argue that this is, in a way, it's sort of nonsensical. It implies that the behavior of people is solely self-determined and that their broader structural factors are not addressed by something like this. What do you say to that?
Mr. RICCIO: To address that question, I think it's useful to look at the results at the high school level. We're seeing, for a subgroup of students who are a little more prepared for high school, but by no means guaranteed to graduate - many of them won't graduate this subgroup of students, the program actually made a substantial difference.
It increased their attendance rates by 15 percentage points. It reduced the likelihood that they would repeat ninth grade. It increased the likelihood that they would earn enough credits to graduate on time. They were on track for on-time graduation. And the other effects across other domains suggest that families are responding. So, I think the point is that it may be possible to address some issues through strategies like this, some of the problem through strategies like this.
It's certainly not the only way and it certainly does not deny that structural problems are very important. But the evidence so far suggests that it might be a useful tool in the toolkit in the longer term. But the mayor has also said and we are certainly very clear that the jury is still out on this program. There's a five-year evaluation. We only have results from the first year, too. And it wouldn't make any sense at this stage to make a policy decision until we see what results are achieved in the longer term.
MARTIN: James Riccio is the director of Low-Wage Workers and Communities Policy Area for the social policy research group, MDRC. He joined us from his office in New York. Mr. Riccio, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. RICCIO: My pleasure.
MARTIN: We wanted another perspective on this program, so we turned to Mark Winston Griffith. He's the executive director of the Drum Major Institute for public policy, and he's also with us from New York. Thank you for joining us.
Mr. MARK WINSTON GRIFFITH (Executive Director, Drum Major Institute): Thank you.
MARTIN: First of all, what is the Drum Major Institute?
Mr. GRIFFITH: The Drum Major Institute is a progressive public policy think tank that is based here in New York, but is actually nationwide.
MARTIN: So, you are on record as a skeptic, maybe that's putting it mildly. You were quoted in one article as saying opportunity in New York City borders on offensive, the idea that a person can be bribed into doing better in school or being a better parent. Why do you say that?
Mr. GRIFFITH: Well, I think that, well, first of all, let's acknowledge that the mayor and New York City has created something called the Center for Economic Opportunity and the Office of Financial Empowerment, and that it does some, actually, good work. And this is just one initiative in its entire scope of work.
Also, I do agree that this is, you know, we're early in the evaluation process. This is the second year of the program and I think it might be early too early to tell. But I made that comment because I think that, look, all of us, I think, would agree that we can be induced to do certain things that we would not otherwise do if we had a little bit more money. I think that that applies to no matter what income level you are, if you're low income, if you're middle class, if you're high income, if you get some more money, sure, you might take a second look at things.
So, on that level, there's certain outcomes that are not surprising at all. But it sort of gets back to what you mentioned before that it takes what I believe has some very strong structural elements to it, when you talk about poverty, and when you break that down into sort of workforce development and health issues and education issues. It takes what is a very complex system and series of structures and breaks it down to individual behavior.
MARTIN: What, you know, the government offers financial incentives for all kinds of behavior that for whatever reason we, as the collective we, have decided as socially desirable buying homes, middle class people get a huge tax break for buying homes, for donating to charities, for installing environmentally friendly windows, things of that sort. So, what's so different about this?
Mr. GRIFFITH: Well, I don't think there's anything wrong in general with incentives. I think that the premise, the starting premise of this program is that there is something wrong with these people on some level that they need a sort of extra kick in the pants. They need a carrot dangled in front of them to do very basic things like, for instance, you know, go to the dentist more or, you know, show up in school more.
And so I think that fundamentally it's actually very different than those things that you talk...
MARTIN: But how is it, though? Because those are financial incentives to engage in conduct that might be different from the behavior you would otherwise engage in. For example, there's cash attached to it. It's one thing to just sort of lecture people and say, show up at this class because this is a good thing to do, but then to offer the financial incentives to actually make it possible for people to do that. What's the...
Mr. GRIFFITH: Well, it definitely is going to create those financial incentives across the board. This is a very select group of people and it starts with poor people and it, again, it begins with the premise that somehow poor people don't they lack the incentives. They lack the drive that other people would ordinarily have.
And so the very premise it is very selective and it starts with an age-old assumption about the laziness and the sluggishness of poor people. I mean, the aspect of it where it gives you a little bit more money, gives you more resources to do things, I think that's fine. I have no problem with that. But it's the rewards aspect of it.
The idea that, you know, you're going to do a little bit, you know, something more for your family because you have a few dollars dangled in front of you, particularly when you're poor and you're, on some level, financially desperate in the first place. I think that that speaks to a certain crassness. And, again, just sort of assuming that poor people don't, you know, are not being hindered by other factors, but it's just about, you know, whether they have enough, you know, whether they have enough drive to get up and do the right thing.
MARTIN: Or is it the argument that they don't have enough money to do the right thing? Like, for example, open checking accounts, for example.
Mr. GRIFFITH: Well, that's fine. I have no problem with that. Right. I mean, so if you don't have enough money to opening up a checking account and you're given some money to do so, I have no problem with that. I mean, I think that's fine. As I mentioned, it's not the resource component of this that I think borders on offensive, it's the incentive part of it that I think a lot of people are reacting to.
MARTIN: What about the other direction, though? Conservatives have criticized the program for saying, why are you paying people to do what they should do anyway, like go to parent-teacher conferences? Why should you have to pay people to do that? What about that?
Mr. GRIFFITH: You know, I have to say, I mean, there's some element to that that is not all that much different than I think that you will hear on the left. And that's part of, I think the part that is kind of insulting. That there are very basic, sort of, family security kinds of issues here that we're being told that you, you know, if we pay you, then you'll do this. I don't think that what conservatives are saying, actually, on some level is very different from what you were hearing on the left.
MARTIN: And very briefly, if you would, and I apologize for leaving this for the last question with only a little bit of time left, but if you could develop an anti-poverty program, what would it look like? What would be your main focus?
Mr. GRIFFITH: Well, I mean...
MARTIN: Let's solve this thing right now.
Mr. GRIFFITH: I mean, it would focus on the same things: education, opportunity, you know, workforce development. Not only giving people access to jobs, but also training them to do so in giving them living wages, you know, once they get in those jobs. So, you know, it's I don't think the areas of focus are incorrect or mistaken. I think it's how they're entering those areas.
MARTIN: All right, to be continued. I understand the program will continue. We'll follow up.
Mark Winston Griffith is the executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. He joined us on the phone from New York. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. GRIFFITH: Thank you.
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