Can You Fight Poverty by Paying Kids to Go to School? asks Glenn Thrush on Politico.
A Memphis experiment is paying low-income parents and their teens for working full-time, getting medical check-ups, going to school, taking a college entrance exam and the like.
A student who compiles an acceptable school attendance record gets $40 a month, showing up for an annual dental or medical check-up means a $100 check, grades are monetized ($30 for an A, $20 for B, $10 for a C) and taking a college entrance exam like the ACT gets you a $50 check. Parents are also rewarded: Adults get a $150 monthly bonus, up to $1,800 a year, simply for working full-time.
Even supporters admit they’re a bit dubious, as when the caseworkers administering the program in Memphis pointedly asked me why they couldn’t get a little extra cash for being responsible grown-ups. “No joke. I could use an extra $150 a month for showing up at work,” one of them told me. “Do you really think our clients are that much worse off than we are?”
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg paid millions of dollars of his own money to fund an experiment in cash transfers in 2007. Despite meager results, Memphis is trying the idea, funded by the city, federal grants and Bloomberg’s philanthropy.
New York City’s experiment offered “large, intermittent payouts for big achievements instead of more frequent rewards for smaller achievements that would give families a greater sense of forward progress,” writes Thrush.
Students could earn $300 to $350—big money for a family earning $25,000 a year—for passing their standardized assessment tests in the fourth and eighth grades, or a whopping $600 for annual subject-based high school tests known as Regents Exams. But as incentives go, they were too big, too delayed. . . . Other mistakes seem obvious in retrospect; offering a kid $50 for obtaining a library card doesn’t mean they’ll use it take out a book—especially if they are already reading below grade level.
. . . education incentives “had few effects” on the academic performance of school-age children who received the cash, according to MDRC’s 2013 report.
The program “worked best as a boost for students already moving in the right direction, rather than a lever for digging the poorest of the poor out of their deep hole,” writes Thrush.
In Memphis, it was hard to recruit families, says Coasy Hale, who works for Memphis HOPE, one of two organizations picked to counsel clients and deliver program materials. People thought it was a scam. “They were like ‘Who is really going to pay us to do stuff we should already be doing anyway?”
Once enrolled, parents split into two distinct groups: “One segment of parents was highly motivated to earn rewards and pushed their kids in school, and an equally large group tuned in and out, and did just the bare minimum to get a few checks.”
. . . most poor people have parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents who received some form of government assistance and they tended to view the new rewards system as just another entitlement that would come and go. “People don’t really have to worry about food or housing. They go from crisis to crisis but they basically can survive,” says Gwen Price, whose staff at Porter-Leath oversees the other 300 Memphis families in the program. “They figure my mother got by, and I’ll get by, so why change?”
Counselors try to help the lowest-income families improve their planning and time management skills. But “it’s been a slog,” writes Thrush.
Cash transfers may help the “hardest-working poor” stabilize their lives, but do little for people who wouldn’t get their kids to school without a bribe.
I reported on welfare reform when I worked at the San Jose Mercury News. I met poor people whose lives could be transformed if someone gave them a reliable car. (I gave a bicycle — with a lock and helmet — to a poor Vietnamese family who were thrilled. One of my daughter’s high school friends had abandoned the bike at our house when he got his driver’s license.) And there are poor people who need a lot more than money.
Los Angeles may bribe people to vote in municipal elections. The Ethics Commission has voted to recommend a study of offering cash — perhaps as a lottery prize worth up to $50,000 — to boost turnout.