Have we run out of good ideas or just gone mad? When I heard that the city of New York is going to pay cash to people for acting good, I about threw up. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s antipoverty initiative will give cash (all the money will be raised privately) rewards to influence behavior and reduce poverty. Cash incentives for adults will include $150 a month for keeping a full-time job and $50 a month for having health insurance. Families will receive as much as $50 per month per child for high attendance rates in school, as well as $25 for attending parent-teacher conferences. The city has nearly raised the $53 million it will take to make the program work.
But that’s not all. Bloomberg and his gang want to pay children too. Starting this fall about 40 New York schools (about ten thousand students) will be part of a two year pilot program that pays students for high marks in the classroom. Under the plan, fourth-grade students will receive up to $25 for a perfect score on each of 10 standardized tests throughout the year. Seventh-grade students will be able to earn $50 per test, for a total of up to $500. Fourth graders will receive $5 just for taking the test, and seventh graders will get $10.
Now just for good measure, let me point out the stated advantages of a program that pays cash to influence behavior. First, people are motivated by money; there’s ample proof that the capitalist economy thrives because people desire money. Second, the money is raised privately so except for the administrative work, this program will not dent the city’s budget very much. Third, hundreds of other programs have been tried to stem poverty, reduce violence, and improve test scores to no avail. Fourth, people like to be praised and rewarded, especially those who rarely experience a pat on the back. And finally, in a broad sense, it’s not a wild idea; cash bonuses have been affectively used to influence people since the beginning of currency.
And now let me tell you why each of these advantages hold no water in this situation. First, I will admit, capitalism thrives because people want and need money. But paying money to citizens who make basic, logical, everyday decisions is not capitalism, it is socialism. Socialism does not work – just look at your son’s or daughter’s world history book for proof. Second, regardless of where the cash payments come from, the program will take up valuable administrative time to implement. New staff will need to be hired and an extensive monitoring system will need to be installed. More city bureaucracy and government intervention is going to slow down the efficiency of the city and state, no matter if the money is raised privately. Third, obviously our country has some serious problems. Poverty, violence, and education top the list. And hundreds of programs and ideas have been tried or discussed because nobody is quite sure how to improve these things. But just because past programs have failed, doesn’t mean we should scrape the bottom of the barrel and madly implement programs that might work in the short term, but will surely be a detriment in the long run. Fourth, rewarding people is important, especially youngsters. However, if we begin praising people for achieving normal, everyday things, both the action and the reward become watered down. For example, if you give a child a cookie every time he makes his bed, soon the cookie will grow old, and the bed making will lose its importance. Thus, you’ll either have to increase the reward or change the task for the child to continue to be motivated. And finally, cash rewards do work in the business place (and admittedly some countries are affectively using cash payments systems like this one to improve behavior) but paying out cash to encourage expected behavior from citizens is eerily similar to the food stamp programs of old that benefited welfare recipients for merely looking for a job. That program did not work, and neither will this one.
One detractor of the program said it like this: “We have now gone from ‘You can feed a man with fish, but it is better to teach him how to fish’ to ‘Let’s pay the man $100 per month for having a fishing pole.’
America has its problems. But instead of looking for short term answers, we need to attack these issues with the same hard work and enthusiasm that helped us create this great country. Paying people to fix the problems is not only ridiculous, it’s insulting.