The Case Against Incentives

Last year, the administration of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a series of experimental initiatives whose intention was to lift families out of poverty, and more specifically, to encourage young people to stay in school and do better while there. Those are admirable goals, which those of us in the youth service field share.

The initiatives all revolved around the provision of financial incentives to families and students for performing certain tasks well. Among the elements: up to $5,000 per year for families if the parents attend parent-teacher conferences, go to medical checkups or hold down a full-time job; free cell phones and free minutes for students who attend school; free tickets to concerts and sporting events for students who perform well on exams.

The proposals were applauded by many. Bruce Gordon, past president of Verizon, who is chairing an advisory board for the project, declared, “This is the most direct way of meeting kids where they are and using something they already want as an incentive.”

Bloomberg stated, “In the private sector, financial incentives encourage actions that are good for the company: working harder, hitting sales targets or landing more clients. In the public sector, we believe that financial incentives will encourage actions that are good for the city and its families: higher attendance in schools, more parental involvement in education and better career skills.”

I’m not so sure.

As director of a youth service agency that works with impoverished families, homeless youth, and youth who have dropped out of high school, I can attest that my co-workers and I have struggled for years with how to motivate youths to stay in school, and motivate families to be active, productive participants in their children’s lives.

But giving out cell phones to achieve this? Or cash? I tend to side with Heather MacDonald, a research fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who told The New York Times: “You engage in learning because it develops you for future activities, because you are investing in yourself for a future reward. What this is doing is instead creating an immediate, tangible reward that will obscure that.”

She may sound idealistic to some, but I think she is right.

A few months ago, I was in a meeting with officials from Vermont’s child welfare and mental health systems, and we delved into this very topic: how to boost the high school completion rate for youth in foster care and for youth receiving mental health care. The commissioner of the foster care system stated, “When I was young, I stayed in school and tried to do well, because in the back of my mind was this notion that school mattered, that in the end my efforts would pay off for me.”

I e-mailed him later that day to say I agreed and to add my own tale from when I worked for a foster care official in New York who was of Puerto Rican descent. His parents had immigrated to Brooklyn when he was a child, and he grew up in the projects. Even though he was only in his late 40s, he told me, “All of the kids I grew up with in those projects are either dead or serving long sentences in jail. I am the only one who stayed in school, graduated, started working and went on to a middle-class life.”

“Why was it different for you?” I asked him.

He laughed a bit and replied, “Because my father would have killed me had I done otherwise.”

We struggle all the time at Spectrum Youth and Family Services with ways of motivating kids to stay in school or, if they have dropped out, convincing them to re-enter. As one of our education staffers once told me, “Occasionally, the light goes on for a kid, and he or she realizes, ‘Hey, I need my diploma if I ever want better for myself than a job at McDonald’s.’ ”

Unfortunately, most foster and homeless youths don’t have parents around who will “kill” them for dropping out. So I don’t have the magic answer to motivate these youths, other than the constant drumbeat from me and my staff that education matters – a lot. The more we put that message out there, the better the chances that it will get through.

Meanwhile, we are not stooping to giving out cell phones and concert tickets. Those are short-term rewards that might make adults feel like they’re accomplishing something, but don’t do much for youth in the long run.


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