Bribing the poor – with predictable results

This is a long but worthwhile article (from the City Journal) on the Opportunity NYC–Family Rewards program in NY City. Essentially, it pays “poor” folks to behave responsibly – you know, like most of the rest of us do. While it is not taxpayer funded, the city and federal apparatchiks are looking at this as a model for future government poverty programs.

But the program’s proposed cure is potentially worse than the disease: paying families for activities that are part of the normal repertoire of what it means to be a responsible parent or student. (These payments are known as conditional cash transfers, or CCTs.) Randomly selected low-income parents of elementary- and middle-school students in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan are paid $25 each month that their child has a 95 percent school attendance record; high school students with a low-income parent in the program receive $50 a month for a similar attendance rate. Elementary- and middle-school students who make progress on annual academic tests net their parents $300 and $350, respectively. High school students get $600 each year that they accumulate 11 course credits (the bare minimum to stay on track to graduate) and another $600 for each New York State Regents exam that they pass. Parents are paid $25 for attending a parent-teacher conference or discussing their child’s test results with a teacher; they receive $50 for getting their child a library card. Taking advantage of taxpayer-subsidized Medicaid services, such as free medical checkups, brings a $200 annual windfall; simply maintaining free Medicaid insurance earns the recipient $20 a month. Working full-time earns an additional $150 a month beyond the existing salary. Seeking education and training while working at least ten hours a week could net a parent $3,000 over three years.

How has the program worked so far (2 years into a 4 year trial)? Predictably, not so well:

Contrary to the expectations of both its supporters and critics, the Bloomberg experiment had almost no effect on its participants’ behavior. Last month, MDRC (a welfare-research organization that operates the Family Rewards demonstration) published an interim report on the program’s first two years; the findings were stunning. The program had no effect on students’ attendance rates compared with those of students in the control group; it had no effect on average test scores or academic proficiency rates; it had no effect on high school students’ overall accumulation of course credits or successfully passed Regents exams; it had only a negligible effect on the rate at which parents sought a free annual checkup for themselves or their children compared with parents in the control group; and it had a negative effect on the rate at which parents sought education or training for themselves.

In a land of virtually unlimited opportunity (although that’s changing for the worse), a land where people can come with no money and facing a language barrier and end up business owners, we can’t even bribe some people to act responsibly. What the hell is up with that?

If the poor cared about personal responsibility they wouldn’t be poor to begin with. This is a cultural problem that can only be addressed when the real causes are understood and identified.

But the best solution for poverty reduction is the one that is the least likely to pass the lips of liberal policy makers: marriage. As was already abundantly clear before the CCTs, single-parent households are the primary source of long-term poverty in New York City and the country. Looked at from a purely economic standpoint (the least relevant one), a married father provides his children with additional material support and manpower backup when all hell breaks out in a household, as it periodically will. A father also serves as a more credible authority figure than a mother, on average, something that boys particularly need. The recent outbreaks of anarchy in Philadelphia and New York by bands of inner-city youth suggests that the systematic disappearance of fathers from their children’s lives is taking an ever-greater toll on social order.

That’s what needs to be discussed – honestly and openly.

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