Paying Kids to Go to School: Can it Work?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

On a recent morning Willina Rodriguez strode across 9th Avenue in cropped pants, wearing red shoes and lipstick that matched them.

The high school senior’s stylish outfit hinted at what she hopes to be: a fashion designer. The wiry 17-year-old whose long, black curly hair is streaked with red highlights already has a name for her future label.

“I would like Sophia Laurel for some reason,” she said. “It sounds cool.”

Willina now thinks she has the grades, in the 80 and 90 range, which will open the doors of the Fashion Institute of Technology to her. But not too long ago, when Willina was a sophomore, her grades hovered around 50. And she skipped classes 15 days a month.

"I felt like being with my friends was more important than school and I wasn’t really motivated to do good,” Willina said.

She turned her academic performance around after she passed her science Regents exam at the end of her sophomore year. 

“And I earned $500 for it,” she said. “When I had those bills in my hand, I said, ‘Oh, OK then. I’m going to start doing good so I can keep getting money.’”

Willina received the money as a part of an experiment of the Bloomberg administration called Family Rewards 2.0. The city is trying to motivate kids by paying them to go to school, get good grades and pass standardized tests. Parents also get cash rewards. Willina’s mom, Carmen De La Cruz, 42, gets conditional cash if she works full time and if she and Willina do annual physical and dental check-ups.  

“This program, Family Rewards, was like a motivation not just to work but also for my daughter’s education and for everything,” De La Cruz said.

This is at the heart of the Family Rewards experiment. Give low-income families cash when they make better short-term decisions. The theory is that rewarding good choices in health, education and work leads to permanent changes in habits and behavior. And that change then breaks the cycle of inter-generational poverty.

But those working on the program say getting people to make good choices isn’t always easy.

“We are trying to work with people toward behavioral change,” said Ilana Zimmerman, a director at the Children’s Aid Society, which is running the Family Rewards program. “And people are constantly weighing these cons and pros of whether they’re ready and willing to change behavior.”

This is the first time a conditional cash transfer program is being tested in the United States. Bloomberg got the idea from Mexico's program, which advocates say lifted scores of people out of extreme poverty, and wanted to replicate it in New York City.

“The [U.S.] government has been fighting poverty with the same basic weapons for decades," Bloomberg said. "And we weren’t going to wait for them to develop new, innovative approaches.”

In 2007, the city launched a three-year conditional cash transfer program. It was only a small experimental program, not like Mexico’s, which essentially became the main welfare system. But by 2010 it was clear the program wasn’t successful in New York. Bloomberg wasn’t discouraged. He still wanted to give conditional cash another shot. Jim Riccio worked on redesigning the program. 

“The new demonstration is an attempt to apply the lesson from the original study, build a stronger intervention, one we think … will have bigger effects,” Riccio said.

Riccio works at a non-profit research organization, MDRC, that launched the next phase. Six hundred Bronx families have earned on average $4000 in the past two years. But Riccio says we’ll have to wait for 2015 to see if paying people for good behavior can prevent another cycle of poverty.   

“The jury is out,” Riccio said. “And we’ll have to wait and see how the results turn out.”  

Some experts think New York’s program is an important experiment, because it could be used to replace traditional welfare models if it proves to be successful. Others, like Lawrence Mead, a professor of public policy at NYU, think this all cash-no enforcement approach will not work. 

“It doesn’t change behavior,” Mead said. “There’s no reason to think that doing that is going to cause people to live a different life. Change, as far as we have learned, is primarily a matter of enforcement.”

But Willina says getting cash rewards has changed her. She says she'll continue doing well in college when those rewards will no longer be available. 

“I’m still going to be motivated to do good, because actually I want to … become someone in life,” she said.


Karen Frillmann


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Comments [7]

Banana from Denver, Colorado

This is a splendid idea! Then my pupils would show up when i teach geometry!! NOPE. I LOVE the idea because we would get money!! YAY!!

Feb. 05 2014 10:56 PM
Rick from Bronx, New York

I thing that caring combined with clearly defined objectives is the main thing in education. Teachers who can be flexible and meet the needs of their students, while keeping focused on standards and skills attainment are going to have more success than teachers who are solely focused on mandated testing or adjusting constantly to the changing circumstances of their students.
That said, I can see how incentives, cash or otherwise, can, at least, in the short term lead to more productivity and focus for students. Say, for instance, a student is not coming to school every day, and this is affecting their good efforts when they do come, then to offer them a small reward for more consistent attendance could very well lead to higher skill attainment. Of course, this type of intervention requires highly dedicated and skilled teachers, which only comes from experience.
As to the long term, I really can't say. But I suppose, if applied consistently over a long enough period, say four to six years, one might see some positive effect on a students motivation and achievements.

Dec. 24 2013 05:56 PM
SPR from S.I., N.Y.

And what about all those students who come to school, do their work,behave properly, and do everything else that you'd pay the other students to do? Will they get $$$ too?

Dec. 24 2013 05:48 PM
Annie from Staten Island

The problem of this program is its implication that poverty is caused by poor choices, not lack of access to resources. It is saying that if the poor make better choices, their lives will be better. What the program is really doing is to finally provide some basic monetary support so that one could have some resource and support to go to school, or to go to see a doctor.

Dec. 24 2013 11:52 AM

This is ridiculous! I work with teenage women, and I've talked with them about why they don't want to go to school. I can't tell you how many times I've heard directly or gleaned from what these women say that they don't have someone who cares. Someone who motivates them. Money is NOT going to solve this problem. Caring, talented teachers are important to motivate students, but society as a whole has a responsibility to care for our youth. Supporting parents so that they can guide and motivate their children is also important. As a whole, if society doesn't care, then why should the child care if he/she goes to school?

Dec. 24 2013 10:44 AM
Benjamin Kaufman from New City, NY

The cycle of intergenerational poverty can be broken only when a group is able to accumulate wealth, which is impossible to do on a minimum wage that is far below a living wage. There are plenty of high school graduates, and even college graduates, who cannot find work with a living wage. And if this was not bad enough, food stamp benefits have been reduced.

Dec. 24 2013 10:36 AM
HipHopSays from Fort Greene

If this pilot is based off of the last bloomie transfer initiative then the story has an error in that program was based on a design from a Harvard Ed policy guy who tried out the program in a handful of other US cities like Chicago. The story would have the listener believe it came from Mexico in whole part. It's sad that instead of tackling poverty America (NYC) would rather throw money at issues to make it go away....this program will transfer the kids who live in poverty into another impoverished situation --- ie: school debt. -- that will make her poorer than her parents are now . The hard skills to keep the kids out of poverty such as recognizing good saving options, learning obtainable goals, accessing and reaccessing those goals are never learned through a transfer program but immediate poverty is 'alleviated' as cash receipts increase for the families but stopping 'generational' poverty -- not so much. I guess I should expect something like this from a business man like bloomberg.

Dec. 24 2013 10:30 AM

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