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The Good-Behavior Bribe

Can cash incentives pull a poor family out of poverty?


Ruddy and Maria Mieses, with their children, from left, Rubbay, Ruddyel, Ruddy Jr,. and Kilvis.   

At 5:30 in the morning, Ruddy Mieses, one of the first participants in Michael Bloomberg’s radical new antipoverty plan, parks his rented white Crown Victoria in front of a forbidding brick complex in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and takes stock of his finances. The livery-cab driver’s ten-and-a-half-hour shift has earned him $145. Not too bad. Last week, business was slow, and he had netted less than $100 on two consecutive nights. On especially slow nights, he could work a ten-hour shift and actually lose money after figuring in costs.

Bleary-eyed and ready for bed, Ruddy (pronounced like “Rudy”) goes into his apartment in the low-income Riverdale Osborne Towers, kisses his wife, Maria, and falls asleep watching television.

Just as Ruddy’s long night is ending, Maria’s shift begins. At six, she wakes up their four children, and as they take showers and put on their school uniforms, she makes pancakes and eggs. They’re out the door at 7:30 a.m. and off to P.S. 156, where the two youngest boys, Ruddyel and Rubbay, are enrolled. Sixth-grader Ruddy Jr. and his seventh-grade sister, Kilvis, go to I.S. 392, a gifted middle school in the same building, where the scores are outstanding and three-quarters of the students receive free lunches.

After dropping them off, Maria catches a subway to downtown Brooklyn. By a quarter to nine, she’s sitting in class at the ASA Institute, working her way toward a certificate in criminal justice. Maria used to work as a day-care assistant, but she lost her job three years ago when the center closed. She’s taken out $13,000 worth of loans to go back to school in the hopes that she’ll eventually get a decent-paying job in the New York City court system. But for now, the family is making do with one income.

At 2:30, Maria picks up the kids and starts preparing their dinner: rice and beans with seasoned chicken. By 4:30, they’re doing their homework. Eight-year-old Ruddyel is learning the word vanish. Vanish means when you disappear, he writes in his notebook, gripping the pencil tightly. Across the table, Ruddy Jr. is discovering how to determine whether 3,464,870 is divisible by 3. “You, like, add up the numbers and see if 3 goes into that number,” he says. He does the addition in his head. “It equals 32—it doesn’t go in!”

When he finishes his math homework, Ruddy Jr. stands up and bounces from one foot to the other. Asked about his favorite subject, he answers, “ELA”: English-language arts. “We get to write memoirs, like events that happened,” he says, looking at me to make sure I understand. He shifts his weight again and seems on the verge of exploding with energy. “For my memoir, I wrote about the time we went to Medieval Times! I got to go there last year. They took a picture of me with the king!”

By 7 p.m., the homework is done and the kids are watching television. The household is in bed by nine, all except Ruddy Sr., who has already said good-bye to his family and begun his shift. The next day promises to be nearly identical. “Here, everything is about time,” Maria tells me. “It’s always the same. We’re working, but we never have any money.”

The Mieseses are poor—a family of six living on $20,000 a year—which qualifies them to become one of the approximately 5,000 families enrolled in Opportunity NYC, a two-year Bloomberg initiative begun in September that gives low-income families money when they complete certain activities, such as attending a parent-teacher conference, obtaining a library card, or taking a child for an annual checkup. The technical term for this approach is conditional cash transfers. Pay poor families to do things that are in their best interest, the thinking goes, and maybe their kids won’t be poor—the “intergenerational cycle of poverty” will be broken. Although the cash will undoubtedly help families pay bills, the real hope is to change behavior by adding an extra incentive to focus on long-term goals, which often get lost in the stress that characterizes a life lived from paycheck to paycheck. “Poverty,” as George Orwell wrote, “annihilates the future.”

Bloomberg’s initiative takes its inspiration from Mexico’s primary antipoverty program, Oportunidades. Since its launch in 1997, Oportunidades is credited with increasing the number of kids starting high school in rural areas by 85 percent and cutting the poverty rate by 5 percent. Its success has led more than twenty other developing countries to implement similar programs.

“At the beginning, we looked at it with interest but didn’t think it applied,” says Linda Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services. “It was being used to get kids out of the fields and into the classrooms. But as we dug deeper, we started asking, ‘Gee, if something works in very poor countries, could it work here?’”

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