Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Me Love You Long Time In the Laboratory For $5000

Pay the poor for good behavior?

"New York Mayor Bloomberg wants to reduce poverty through cash incentives. It just could work.

What if poor parents were paid to talk with their kid's teacher? Or to visit a dentist, or get job training? New York's mayor believes such incentives can reduce the nearly 20 percent poverty rate in his city. Kudos to him for taking a new crack at an old problem.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's hope is not just a wispy dream. Similar incentive programs in other countries have a proven track record and broad political support. In Mexico, such an approach has helped to raise school attendance, improve nutrition, and reduce extreme poverty. The World Bank enthusiastically backs the idea, which is being practiced in about 30 countries.

The mayor, a Republican, is not above importing policy, as long as it works (he plans to copy London's tax on downtown driving to fight global warming).

The city will start the privately funded, anti-poverty experiment in September, measuring it against a control group of nonparticipants. Those in the pilot plan can earn up to $5,000 a year by meeting criteria related to health, education, and work. That amounts to a 25 percent raise for a family of four living below the poverty line of about $20,000. If the plan succeeds, the mayor wants to commit public funds to expand it.

It's no shock that a mayor is reaching for this kind of innovation. Cities and states are America's problem-solving laboratories. What is surprising, and refreshingly so, is new national attention to poverty."

" The rewards have been used in other countries, including Brazil and Mexico, and have drawn widespread praise for changing behavior among the poor. Mayor Michael Bloomberg traveled to Mexico this spring to study the healthy lifestyle payments, also known as conditional cash transfers.

Among the possible rewards in New York's program are $25 for attending parent-teacher conferences, $25 per month for a child who maintains a 95 percent school attendance record, $400 for graduating high school, $100 for each family member who sees the dentist every six months and $150 a month for adults who work full time.

But some critics have raised questions about cash reward programs, saying they promote the misguided idea that poor people could be successful if they just made better choices.

"It just reinforces the impression that if everybody would just work hard enough and change their personal behavior we could solve poverty in this country, and that's not reflected in the facts," said Margy Waller, co-founder of Inclusion, a research and policy group in Washington.

Waller, who served as a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration, said it would be more effective to focus on labor issues, such as making sure wage laws are enforced and improving benefits for working people."

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