Bribery strikes out

New York City will end a privately funded program that paid low-income parents for such things as school attendance, trips to the dentist and working full-time. Effects were “modest,” a study found. The Family Rewards program was misconceived, writes City Journal’s Heather Mac Donald in Bribery Strikes Out.

It imitated a Mexican program to help desperately poor campesinos. “Facing grinding economic pressures, parents pull their children out of school to help with the harvest; mothers don’t take their children to the doctor because they can’t wrest time away from work in the fields or at home.” But poverty is different in the U.S.

The main drivers of poverty in America are family breakdown (in 2004, single-parent households nationally were six times as likely to be poor as married families) and nonwork (only 5 percent of all families with one full-time worker were poor in New York City from 2005 to 2007, compared with 47 percent of families with no workers).

“Very few inner-city students cut classes or drop out of school to help their parents work,” Mac Donald writes.

Family Rewards infantilized low-income parents and students.

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.

“The United States still ranks as the world’s primary land of opportunity,” Mac Donald writes. Self-discipline and effort pay off.  But it’s hard to get self-discipline by paying people to do what they should be doing anyhow.

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    The poor are different. In some countries, they’re like blue-collar workers struggling with catastrophic circumstances.
    In some cases in this country, it’s the same.
    But when the dependence and infantilization has been a government program, it’s not the same.
    I worked, decades ago, with some of the poor. Not being trained as a social worker, I offered reasonable suggestions. There were reasons the suggestions wouldn’t work. I offered suggestions as to overcoming the first obstacles. More reasons.
    One social worker I talked to insisted that the inability to take steps to improve one’s situation was an affliction that demanded society support it. Not mental shortcomings, or physical issues. Simply an inability–fear, refusal, leaving comfort zone–to make the call to a job opening.
    My guess is that, without free money, the motivation would shortly have been forthcoming.
    For women, as has been said often but not often enough, if you graduate high school, get a job, get married, have kids, in that order, there’s a chance you’ll be poor. Something under a 10% chance. You will note that all of these are choices, to do or not do. Choose wrong and you’re likely to be poor.

  2. I forget the source: “Hunger concentrates the mind wonderfully”.

    Government welfare, in whatever form, must be provided to everyone in the designated category, whatever the reason they’re in it. Private charity (no government money) has no such contraint. Historically, charities typically distinguished between those “worthy” and “unworthy” of assistance. Widows and orphans without family, the sick and the injured were typically in the first category and those who were the author of their own misfortunes, through laziness, alcohol, drugs, crime etc., were in the second. Even in the first category, those who were able to work, even on a limited basis, were typically required to do so.

    It’s politically radioactive, but a huge chunk of our current problems stem from illegitimacy. I just read that the teen birthrate fell slightly, but I couldn’t help wondering how many of the reported teen births were first-time vs. otherwise. Of course, the problem is created by both males and females.

  3. I probably wasn’t clear; I was referring to the historical aspect of private charity, when goverment grants were unknown. In that context, the current illegitimacy situation would be considered unworthy of assistance, as authors of their own misfortunes, through bad decisions. Unfortunately, multi-generational poverty and bad choices are related.

    Even in the 60s, many towns had very limited welfare. In my own time, guys who got their girlfriends pregnant married them and their support was strictly a family matter, as far as local government was concerned. Divorce still carried a social stigma and no-fault divorce didn’t exist, so messing around with a married guy was not an attractive situation for women.

  4. momof4–Illegitimacy–insofar as it leads to children raised by teen mothers who cannot support themselves or their families–is without a doubt a huge problem. But what happens to their children? In which category do they belong?

  5. Bill Leonard says:

    When I was a kid there was a stigma attached to being on welfare, although certain kinds of assistance were understood to be necessary: AFDC, for instance, was understood to be for widowed homemakers with small children.

    Similarly, there was a stigma attached to unmarried pregnancy. If the couple didn’t get married, the young woman left for the summer to “visit aunt Martha,” or some such dodge, and the baby was given out for adoption. Either way, before or after birth, the teenager didn’t gather with other teens and all their little bastards for special parenting classes, which now seem to be part of the high school curriculum.

    It may seem harsh to today’s “progressive” sensibilities, but the system worked, and on balance it was a better and more cohesive country.

    De Toqueville once opined that the republic would survive until Congress learned it could bribe the public with the public’s own money. That is preceisely what is happening with today’s vastly expanded system of entitlements at all levels and across most fields.


  6. Claus, it worked as Bill said. It is necessary to note that adoption records remained sealed, at least through my college years (can’t remember when that changed), unless the birth mother opted otherwise. I think that still should be possible and I understand that there are still organizations which provide assistance to pregnant girls prior to adoptions.

    I was raised on the saying: “if you want less of something, tax it; if you want more of it, subsidize it.” Absolutely. Before legal abortion and reliable contraception, there was vastly less illegitimacy, which is now economically enabled by the government.

    Political will might force some changes, since 47% of people pay no taxes and the top 10% of earners pay 73% of federal income taxes. Fewer and fewer people are being forced to subsidize others’ bad choices. Any changes will be painful, but so is the current situation. Some years ago, I remember a black mayor say it was time to bring back orphanages. I don’t know how serious he was-we’ve had huge number of kids surviving (I won’t say being raised) in highly undesirable situations and then perpetuating the same bad choices.

  7. Mark Roulo says:

    “…since 47% of people pay no taxes…

    I’m no fan of higher taxes, but it important to note that 47% of people in tax-year 2009 will pay no *FEDERAL* income tax. Many of these people will still pay FICA and medicare taxes at the federal level, and some percentage of these people will still pay state taxes of some kind (income, sales, real-estate).

    For many lower income people, the FICA/medicare tax is a larger federal burden than income tax and until recently that money was plunked into the general fund and spent (and the SS fund got bonds, but the *reported* federal deficit didn’t count those bonds as part of the deficit).

    -Mark Roulo

  8. sorry: I thought I had said federal both places.

    It doesn’t change the fact that those at the lowest-SES level consume more in services than they pay in taxes, especially since both their educational needs and their medical needs (not limited to obstetric and pediatric but also results of other bad choices) use more resources. For some, that is a temporary situation, since they move upward, but we have increasing levels of multi-generational poverty, with all of its associated problems (crime, addictions etc.) and costs.

    The situation is painful but I don’t think it’s sustainable.

  9. This is not an easy problem to solve. I work in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country and see every day the effects of government assistance gone wrong. I do not have the answers, but what I do know is that our country has moved passed an age where we simply leave children on the street to fend for themselves. Government assistance should be used to put the ball in the child’s court instead of the parents’ while not creating adults out of children (as their environments oftentimes tend to).

  10. Tom West says:

    I don’t think stepping backwards in time is an option. The simple reality is that in our current society, the vast majority are not willing to let those living in the United States die of starvation for any reason, be it bad decisions, bad luck, etc.

    You’re absolutely right that many people might be more responsible if their lives were in their hands and failure meant death. But many is not all. Some people *would* die. And that is not acceptable to our current society.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Tom West.
    Let’s say you’re right about some would die anyway, and we wouldn’t accept that.
    I see two problems with that. Of those who might die, some would have genuine, diagnosable disabilities and, presumably, would be supported.
    Those who simply refused to support themselves would likely not die. It’s almost a tautology. If they’re so messed up as to starve themselves to death because they simply refuse to attempt to support themselves, they’re probably in the category of disabled.
    Those not, presuming there are any, would be in the position of a kid holding his breath until he turns blue so his parents will give him what he wants. Eventually, he breathes.

    However, it would be considerably easier to sell various support programs if they were not accompanied by guilt trips laid on those of us who are the ants in the old fable, who are supposed to support the grasshopper, who sneered at our work and frugality.
    Let’s be honest and say we need to support some small cohort of people because if we don’t, they’ll starve themselves to death. Not a matter of wicked capitalism, of lack of compassion, of greed, of racism.
    I’d suggest reading Magnet’s “The Dream and The Nightmare” and Dalrymple’s “The View from The Bottom”.
    From time to time, some folks get a clue. Years ago, in a Detroit paper, an attempted muckraking fell short when the reporter finally dialed the social worker’s office herself and handed the phone to the person whose assistance had been cut off because she didn’t make the appointments. Person wouldn’t take the phone.
    NOT OUR FAULT, was the implication, probably unlooked for when the assignment began.

  12. tim-10-ber says:

    on taxes — not only are there those that do NOT pay federal taxes with all the tax credits there is still the possibility they can get a FEDERAL tax refund. That is just plain wrong!

    Yes, there are some members of society that will always need support. But…every since the welfare state was introduced and the citizens could get free assistance and seemingly had incentive to get it we have seen the breakdown of the family…the welfare system was suppose to be a safety net and nothing more. Now it is a way of life…

    When do those of us that pay federal taxes say enough?

  13. Richard Aubrey says:


    Shelby Steele once said that white liberal guilt had done something slavery, jim crow, and segregation had not been able to accomplish; destroy the black family.

    Others have said that the KKK could not, in its wildest dreams, have figured out a better way to destroy the lives of so many blacks.

    And feel good about it in the process

    And produce a permanent underclass whose votes can be bought with mostly empty promises.

    What’s not to like?

  14. For most families, daycare expenses form a huge chunk of their monthly budget, and it has become extremely difficult for them to see a way through it.

  15. Oh Tom, if you’d only relinquish your adherence to convenient and self-serving catch-phrases you might realize that what you’re supporting has resulted in a substantially higher body count then what you oppose.

    The destruction of the nuclear family, in which the institution of welfare is significantly complicit, has resulted in a lot more in the way of deaths then any putative starvation and, by the way, is much more recalcitrant of solution and more destructive to society in general. After all, a couple of square meals solve the problem of starvation but what’s it take to solve the problems that result from single-parent, particularly poor single-parent, families? On the evidence, an expansion of number of prisons and hiring lots more coroners.

    Also, you clearly don’t believe “that in our current society, the vast majority are not willing to let those living in the United States die of starvation for any reason”. If you actually believed that you wouldn’t have an reason to support mandating generosity. Welfare only makes sense if you believe that the vast majority are willing to let their fellow inhabitants die of starvation.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    You are right, but you passed over the issue about feeling good when doing such things for (to) the wretched of the earth.
    Particularly when you’re doing it with other people’s money.

  17. Tom West says:

    what you’re supporting has resulted in a substantially higher body count then what you oppose.

    Quite possibly. But you’re assuming I support a welfare state for *their* benefit. I was cured of that many years ago while still in high school. I got into a conversation with a homeless person who made it clear what he wanted – a big bottle of alcohol. If I wasn’t willing to provide that, then it was obvious I was ‘helping’ for *my* benefit, not his.

    (I think he was getting a little cranky about having a bunch of middle-class teenage volunteers ‘helping’.)

    However, he was right. I support the policies that I do for *my* benefit. If it happens to overlap with theirs (and I feel it often, but not always does), then that’s fine. But I don’t need the self-deception that I’m doing it all for them to support those policies. Nor do I need the self-deception that I’m a ‘nobler’ person for supporting those policies.

    As for other people’s money. That’s the nature of government. If I think the country needs more money to defend itself (or any other policy I happen to believe in), then yes, I’ll use your money for it, just as I’d expect you to use mine. Welcome to democracy.

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    “quite possibly” the higher body count, and then we get to how it makes you feel.
    What I said.

  19. As for other people’s money. That’s the nature of government.

    No – that’s the nature of redistribution

  20. Tom West says:

    No – that’s the nature of redistribution

    Fine – you go build your own roads…

    *Everything* that the government spends is going to have people who disagree with how it’s spent. So, then it’s *all* redistribution, which makes the term near meaningless.

    There may be a few people in this world who have a government who wish they didn’t have one. But I bet that almost every person without any government wishes they *did* have one.

  21. Transfer payments to individuals are not at all similar to public goods like roads. Even I’m not that cynical.

  22. Bill Leonard says:

    Right on target, Cynical. The role of local government is to build roads, provide some level of police and fire service, and that’s really about it. Yes, such functions as public libraries, if the local citizens wish to fund same. Similarly, schools.

    Infact, that’s how school funding originally worked in this land: most everyone realized education was important, so the community was willing to tax itself to pay for a school and teachers to staff it. That worked in an earlier, largely rural country.

    That paradigm may or may not work on a metropolitan scale, but it sure as hell doesn’twork very well with tenured teachers who are, in most cases, guaranteed jobs for life, or with teachers’ unions that are for themselves, first, their constituents, second, and students — if ever — a very distant third.

    Now: Do I support some bucolic agricultural ideal as workable for an urban society? No, not necessarily. But neither do I support the necessity for a teacher’s union built on a 1930s industrial shop floor model. When my sister-in-law, a teacher and union skate, keeps coming back to that model, I now simply laugh sneeringly at her. It is what the model deserves.


  23. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Poverty is often perpetuated by behavior and lifestyle choices, which directly emanate from one’s VALUES, not one’s socioeconomic status…When there are free admission days offered by many museums, when there are public libraries (free books, unless returned late), when there is free internet access at public libraries, when television now includes a lot of educational programming (PBS, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, History Channel, The Learning Channel, Arts & Entertainment,etc.) many families who are considered “poor” or “working class” do not choose to spend their time or resources on the aforementioned free or low-cost activities. Many students from “disadvantaged” families tell me the following: their parents don’t take them to a museum or an aquarium or the public library, but will take them to Six Flags or Las Vegas, where they seem to have enough disposable income to spend. Their parents can obviously afford Cable or Satellite TV, but choose to watch MTV or American Idol or R-rated slasher movies or WWE wrestling, rather than educational or substantive programming. These students have expensive XBox or Wii video game systems at home, but a paltry (if any) home library. These students often receive taxpayer-subsidized “free” school breakfast and lunches, but will bring loads of expensive junk food to school to eat as a “snack”. IT’S THE VALUES, STUPID, not the economy. ‘Nuff said.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by JoanneLeeJacobs. JoanneLeeJacobs said: New blog post: Bribery strikes out […]