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The Good-Behavior Bribe

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Mayer Bloomberg in Brownsville, announcing Opportunity NYC.   

The program is funded by Bloomberg himself, along with the Rockefeller Foundation and a number of other private philanthropies, and focuses on families living in poor neighborhoods like East Harlem and Brownsville. Half of the 5,000 enrollees, chosen by lottery, are given a list of education, health, and employment goals for which they can receive funds, and are encouraged to open bank accounts (the program starts them off with a $50 deposit). Every two months, as they submit proof of completed activities (attendance records, medical receipts, test scores), rewards are deposited electronically into the family’s account. If a family completes all of the listed activities, it can earn up to $6,000 a year.

The other half simply live their lives, serving as the control group. After two years, it is hoped, the city will be able to see whether the money was effective in motivating parents and children to pursue productive behavior. If so, it could lead to an expanded, publicly funded program.

Like the majority of families in Opportunity NYC, the Mieseses didn’t have a bank account, and Maria opened one immediately (thus far, participants have opened 625 new accounts). But there doesn’t seem to be much more room for changes in behavior: The family already does most of the things the program encourages. The kids all have library cards, attend school, and pass their standardized tests. They regularly go to the doctor and the dentist, and Maria meets frequently with the kids’ teachers. She also receives educational training (for which she can earn up to $3,000 a year), and her husband works seven nights a week, at least ten hours a shift.

Indeed, families like the Mieseses—working hard, looking out for their children’s interests, but nonetheless poor—seem to fill the ranks of Opportunity NYC participants. Delores Owens, the project coordinator for Opportunity NYC at the Brownsville Multi-Family Health Center, one of the program’s nonprofit partners, estimates that half of the parents in the program are employed, a much higher percentage than the population she usually works with. The reason seems to be that the Opportunity families are a self-selecting group: Families already waging an all-out battle to provide a better life for their kids jump at the chance to get a little more money. Those caught up in depression, addiction, or any of the other afflictions that often coincide with poverty are less likely to fill out the forms and show up for the appointments, or do any of the other initial tasks needed to enroll.

The cause of the Mieses family’s poverty is not poor decision-making, but the fact that Ruddy doesn’t earn a living wage.

“We have not been as successful as we would have liked in reaching the deep pockets of poverty,” says Owens. She is seeking out eligible families in local shelters, but it’s difficult. “People are thinking, ‘Can I keep the lights on, can I get food?’” she says. “It’s not that their children aren’t a priority but that they are trying to survive.”

The program has come with its share of controversy—which is one reason that Bloomberg decided to launch the pilot without taxpayer money. Critics on the right bemoan its big-government approach (even though it is privately funded); critics on the left characterize it as condescending to the poor—or at best a tiny Band-Aid on the gaping wound of poverty.

Especially controversial is the money for school activities. The program will pay high-school students $50 for each month that their attendance record is at least 95 percent, $50 for taking the PSAT, $600 for each Regents exam they pass, and $200 when they graduate from high school. Parents, too, get money for their children’s academic success—for example, they earn up to $300 a year if their elementary-school child passes his or her standardized tests.

This focus on grades and relentless testing doesn’t sit well with education activist Jonathan Kozol, who e-mailed me that “bribing parents to cooperate with testing is an utterly misguided and dangerous idea.” Paying for performance, critics like Kozol argue, diminishes the value of curiosity and learning for its own sake—attitudes that are just as critical to a child’s success as doing well on tests.

One day, I put the question to the Mieses kids. Do they think the promise of money will make them work harder in school? Kilvis, an honor student who is nearly as tall as her mom, answers without missing a beat: “No, I’ll do the same things I’m doing right now.”

Still, she thinks the program is a good idea. Ruddy Jr. agrees. “I’m already working pretty hard,” he says. “I don’t know if I could work any harder!” He pauses. “Well, it might make me do a little bit more.” Now he’s bouncing back and forth, getting excited. “’Cause, like, if I get enough money then I might go back to Medieval Times!”


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