Paying Kids to Go to School: Can it Work?

Willina Rodriguez

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.