The $53 million pilot program, called Opportunity NYC, focuses on six mostly minority neighborhoods - Brownsville, East New York, Morris Heights, East Tremont and Central and East Harlem. This summer, it will start signing a few thousand families and single adults in those areas to get cash payments for behavior similar to that in the above example. If the pilot "succeeds" after two years, the city could do conditional-cash transfers citywide, costing "hundreds of millions," says Linda Gibbs, deputy mayor for health and human services.
All this to elicit behavior that in many cases is just one step above anti-social.
Consider: In the "family-focused" part of the program, "families" - likely mostly single mothers - will reap $25 to $50 a month per head for making sure their kids get to school 95 percent of the time (older kids will get half of the cash directly). But not sending your kids to school 95 percent of the time isn't any reasonable baseline for measuring improvement. In fact, failing to do the basic job of sending your kids to school unless they're sick should be grounds for a charge of neglect.
Paying people not to do something bad is simply terrible policy. Where does it stop? Will we start paying young men between 15 and 32 not to carry illegal guns?
The program is insulting to a breathtaking degree:
* It will pay families $50 each kid for obtaining library cards - a gross affront to the thousands of poor kids who already willingly spend their good-weather afternoons in cramped public-library branches like the one in Arverne, Queens, diligently reading books and asking for homework help when they need it, with no $50 bribe necessary.
* It will also pay parents $25 to attend conferences with their kids' teachers - a slap at the poor mothers who already care so much about their children's education that they enroll in lotteries to get their kids into charter schools.
* It offers up to $350 for each public-school standardized test on which elementary- and middle-school kids improve or earn a score of "proficient." Families with older kids get $600 a year to advance a grade, $400 to graduate and $600 per passed Regents exam.
In support of such payments, Bloomberg's supporters can point to grim data: 45 percent of the city's black kids and 49 percent of Hispanic kids, many of them poor, don't graduate in four years. But even at the worst high schools in the poorest neighborhoods, 30 percent or so of students regularly graduate in four years. And some schools do much better. Far from an unnatural achievement, high-school graduation is a joyful event for thousands of poor graduates and their relatives each summer - even without the city's cash.
Another "incentive" program will cover 9,000 more fourth- and seventh-graders in 20 city schools. These kids (not their parents) will get "small cash payments" - $5 to $10 just to take "interim assessment tests," and up to $500 annually for perfect scores.
What on earth kind of signal is New York City sending to impressionable 9-year-olds - that it thinks they need to be paid to learn?
Lest they feel left out, the program offers similar insults to adults. It assumes, for example, that they can't "maintain full-time employment" for six weeks at a stretch without a $150-a-month bribe.
But hundreds of thousands of poor New Yorkers have proved they can do just that since the end of no-strings-attached-welfare over the last decade. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office has found that over the last 14 years, the average annual income of the nation's poorest families with children (the bottom 20 percent) has grown 35 percent after inflation, more than the rise of any other income group save for the top 20 percent.
These families' earnings - money from work, rather than government payments - more than doubled. This was due in large part to mothers leaving welfare and going to work, supplemented by a federal "earned-income tax credit" that leaves many working families collecting more than they paid in income tax.
The success of welfare reform shows that for most people, once the government removes a twisted economic incentive for poor people to stay home and collect cash, society's normal economic incentives already work.
Many such people may meet Opportunity NYC's formal benchmarks if they think the reward is worth it, making the mayor's program a "success" - but that only means that they respond to clear economic incentives, just as most people do.
The program doesn't do anything to address social dysfunction: the normalcy of single motherhood in the targeted neighborhoods, and the fact that kids grow up in such a difficult home environment that they have a hard time learning when they finally get to school - something $5 for a kid to take a test can't help.
Worst of all, the mayor's program makes the dangerous assumption that a focus on specific behaviors can replace the traits - self-motivation, personal responsibility and, contrary to the Bloomberg cash offers, an ability to delay gratification - that are behind those behaviors. Bloomberg may instead send an unintended message to the truly dependent among the poor that the government owes them money just to participate minimally in society.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor at City Journal. From city-journal.org.