An Ounce of Encouragement

Some states and localities are taking steps to get constituents to do what they ought to do anyway.
July 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Unlike some of our friends, we never believed in giving our children material rewards for good grades, good behavior or other parent-pleasing accomplishments. Except once when, hungry for the vicarious thrill of seeing our soccer-player daughter score goals, we challenged her to score three in one game - with the promise of a blow-out tour of a candy store if she met this almost-unattainable goal. She did, we paid off, and we felt guilty about the whole affair.

Now, however, we see a growing tide of cities, counties and states turning to similar incentives to get their citizens to behave as they'd like them to. In May, for example, the Texas legislature passed a bill to set up a pilot program to expand health care benefits for Medicaid recipients who participate in weight loss or smoking cessation programs. Public employees in places such as King County, Washington, have been receiving rewards like this for a while now. But it's the move toward incentives for ordinary activities with a broader group of citizens that intrigues us.

New York City appears to be heading in this direction in a big way. It's creating a cutting-edge experiment that will fork over hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year to poor families that meet a variety of goals - including attending parent-teacher conferences, getting proper medical care or even holding down a full-time job. New York's venture, which will begin as a pilot program, is based on a similar, successful, effort in Mexico.

To explain his reasoning, Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted that "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, he added, "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."

One area in which these incentives for better living have shown results can be found in efforts to get kids to show up at school. Lowell High School, in Massachusetts, has seen a dramatic rise in test scores since it started handing out free computers, backpacks and bicycles to seniors with excellent attendance. According to school officials, this helped induce some 200 chronically absent children to start coming in, and once they were actually in class, they started learning.

Sounds pretty good. But does it really make sense for governments to bribe citizens to do things that are in their own best interests to begin with? Isn't it enough that society is already providing the schools and the medical benefits?

Upon reflection, we've come to think that just providing the tools for better living isn't enough if the populace isn't convinced that these are the right tools. Consider the parents in New York City, the ones Mayor Bloomberg wants to lure to school conferences. Maybe they think parent-teacher meetings are a waste of time. Maybe they don't trust the teachers. There are lots of possibilities. Educators may agree that these conversations can result in positive outcomes for the young people being discussed. But if the parents don't see that connection, they're just not going to show up.

The obvious alternative is to educate folks about the benefits of talking to their kids' teachers. But that's an awfully long-term venture, with little guarantee of success. On the other hand, pretty much everybody can comprehend the concept of a few bucks in your hands in exchange for showing up someplace. And if those conferences are genuinely worthwhile - and the parents can see the connection between them and a better life for their kids - then there's a reasonable hope that these same parents will continue to attend the conferences without the cash.

That's how we've decided we can defend our payoff plan in soccer. Our daughter didn't see the connection between scoring goals and anything of value, as long as her team won. If somebody else scored, that was just fine with her. But she sure as heck could appreciate the intrinsic value of a bag of gummi bears.

Did she turn into a goal-scoring machine? Not as a result of our actions. At the end of the day, scoring those three goals didn't help her see any greater value in doing so. We can only hope that citizens will be paid for things that will demonstrate real benefits over time, and that the non-financial incentives for living a healthier life or having educated children will become self-evident.