New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is taking an idea from Mexico and plans to employ it in the greatest city in the world that still struggles with a tough disconnect between wealth and poverty as well as the continued wide divide between children and privilege by paying parents to take care of their children:

New York is searching for new ways to fight persistent poverty, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Commission for Economic Opportunity has recommended useful reforms. To encourage families to participate in these programs, the mayor hopes to recruit private donors to provide parents with a cash incentive to make the right choices for their children — like taking them in for regular checkups and making sure they stay in school.


Here’s how it works in Mexico. It looks like the onus for success falls directly on the mother’s shoulders:

The idea is based on a highly successful Mexican
antipoverty program, known as Oportunidades, that is now being tried by
at least 25 other countries. Mexico began Oportunidades in 1997. Today
it covers one in four Mexican families, helping virtually all the
country’s poor. The average family gets $35 a month, about a quarter of
the rural household income. Families with many children in school can
get up to $153 a month, a ceiling imposed to remove the incentive to
have more children.

To get payments for food, mothers must bring their children in for
regular health checkups and attend informative talks at health centers.
Mothers also get cash if their children attend school at least 85
percent of the time. The payments start after third grade and go
through high school, rising each year as dropout rates get higher and a
child’s forgone earning potential is higher. Because checks go directly
from the central government to mothers whose families meet the
requirements, administrative costs and the chance of corruption are
reduced.

Such a program can be ripe for exploitation and you fight that kind of insidious siphoning of resources with ongoing oversight:

From the beginning, Oportunidades built in rigorous
evaluation. Those studies have shown that it does focus its help on
Mexico’s poorest people, and they are benefiting. Children are bigger
and healthier. Oportunidades has also cut child labor and led to more
schooling. In rural areas, the number of children starting high school
increased by 85 percent.

Is it a sad moment in the history of children that we must now “make it
pay” for parents to tend their children?
Has the family unit become so frayed by the modern world that only
government-sponsored bribes can be used to ensure proper school minding
and regular health care?

Will the tables of payments turn later in life when children must then
be paid to take care of the health needs of their parents in old age?
Are good deeds and proper behavior now open to the highest bidder?
Will we soon require a minimum wage for kindness and responsible
behavior?
Have we crossed the line into an eternal expectation that all proper
deeds now come attached to a price tag?

23 Comments

  1. It’s an initiative headed up by the mayor’s office that would be privately funded.
    The funding doesn’t really matter.
    What matters is that some people – including Mayor Bloomberg and The New York Times — feel we need to pay parents for watching after the best interests of their children.

  2. I can understand the usefulness of such a program in Mexico – or Africa or India, where the imperative is trying to break away fron negative cycles of large scale poverty/famine and to encourage education.
    What I am having trouble understanding is that there are similar levels of poverty in New York and that the poverty that does exist in New York is caused by the same/similar issues as Mexico.
    What are the drop out figures for school in New York ….. what is healthcare provision for those that cannot afford private health insurance?
    I would say that New York has real problems if this is what is being suggested – is it really that bad? How have people in New York reacted to this ?

  3. Dave –
    What concerns me is the continuation of the “welfare mentality” that propagates a permanent lifestyle choice and not one that actually helps people.
    I think as a society we need to have a base expectation that if we choose to have children then we need to also choose to care for them and not expect a payment for making sure our children attend school and are seen by doctors on a regular basis.
    If a parent is incapable of doing those tasks without being paid then, I believe, we are doomed as a society because freedom and personal choice must trump being — but not at the expense of continued self-sufficiency.
    I’m all for free clinics and free lunches for poor children and their families but I’m not in favor of paying mom to get them under the needle or at the table.
    This is the dreaded “welfare mum” mentality that so sickens me:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2005/11/23/begging-from-your-blog/

  4. Hi Nicola!
    I agree this program might work to help break the high-risk poverty cycles in under-developed countries.
    New York’s population is 40% foreign-born as reported in the last Census:
    http://www.wsws.org/articles/2000/jul2000/nyc-j31.shtml
    There is a necessary immigrant mentality that education and health are not important when parents can’t pay high rents and children have to drop out of school to help their parents in their store.
    The mayor is searching for a way — any way — to be proactive in providing for children. He feels if he pays parents to do what they are supposed to do, to bring them up to the expectation that most of us were born into, that he will ultimately have a smarter and healthier city that will cost less out of the city budget than imprisoning them and caring for them in city-owned emergency room visits creating fees for services that will never be paid.

  5. Aren’t we already a nation that feels a great sense of entitlement? Do we really need to increase that? Wouldn’t it be better to help people with time and money management?

  6. Ummm, yeah, Dave… WHERE WERE YOU THAT DAY?! It certainly was a wild conversation that lashed out into email — receiving only, I didn’t reply to any of it.
    I like your friend’s idea, Dave. If there’s an “oops” pregnancy then we have nine months to get at least the mother up-to-speed on what society expects to happen and if she wants to pull in the father for help in that task — if she wasn’t raped or anything else unpleasant that lead to her pregnancy — then she should have that option with the full force of the law behind her.
    I think Bloomberg is seeking a legacy beyond his no-smoking and trans-fats bans. He wants something enduring and that will actually make changes that do long-term good in poor pockets of the city. The fact that he’s asking for private donations to make it happen shows there’s already a misguided lack of public accountability. People will sign up and bellyache when they don’t get paid even if they don’t live up to the mandate of the program.

  7. Hi A S —
    Yes, I agree with you. I guess the argument is that people know what they need to do but they have lost the personal pride to do what is asked of them without asking for anything else in return.
    Is that attitude a failure of society? Government? Religion? Science? Public Health? Education?
    Bribes can change behavior but only on a surface level. When the bribes stop the behavior goes back to level zero where it was before the bribe greased the palms.

  8. I suspect giving them healthcare credits might be a better option that giving them cash ………. or even rent credits – I just have the feeling that cash might well get diverted elsewhere.

  9. Hey Nicola —
    We pretty much have all that already with the credits and the free service but you have to get them in the door to take advantage of those offers and, I guess, the mayor thinks the way to get them to take advantage of pre-existing programs is to bribe them through the door.
    It just strikes me as anti-competitive and anti-human and anti-evolutionary in that it encourages those without self-preservation instincts to mature and linger and thrive as social parasites and to, in turn, bring the rest of us down around them because they are given advantages and encouragement not available to others who face the same trying-to-thrive syndrome.

  10. I know many people that cannot distinguish between needs and wants. I believe that the failure of society is the innate selfish desires of the people therein. I do not believe that it should be the burden of government to take care of the people to the degree that one cannot do anything without the government. That would only produce excessive taxes and buracracy. While it is the obligation of leaders to live by example, it is also the obligation of the individuals to not negelect the needs of others. A heart of charity does not mean let’s dump money in this community. It is to care for others the best that one can with what one has. There are some families who do not have a lot of money or time. The parents may offer to help each other watch the other family’s kids while they are at work or they may take turns cooking for one another, thereby sharing the burden. A family who has enough means to support their family, may opt to buy groceries for the less fortunate one week rather than going to the movies. The small things add up and perhaps if we all cared more for each other there wouldn’t be nuclear tests. But this is just wishful thinking isn’t it?

  11. Hi A S —
    Well, I think what you’re wondering is a start and you ask important questions. If we become a citizenry so wholly reliant on government intervention for our welfare and well-being then we don’t have much of a free market Democracy, do we? That’s more of a social state where no need is above another’s and all work is done in the name of state and its mission to preserve and equally divide the wealth.
    I have a good friend who goes into the harsher city blocks on Saturday mornings and offers to buy the street-begging homeless a sandwich. 99% of the time his offer is turned down. “Keep your sandwich,” he hears over and over again, “I need your money.” They need his money to buy booze and drugs. He’ll feed them if they’re hungry, but he won’t quench their appetite for drugs and alcohol.

  12. I agree – without a work ethic how will people learn to work – when everything is given on a plate to your front door – what incentive is there to do anything else. Society is a sorry place these days.

  13. Nicola —
    Yes, I agree the old “blue-collar” work ethic to work until the job is done is pretty much shot as an ideal to aspire to across the world.
    Now we live in a “gimme for free” society and we become less inclined to innovate and corruption and contempt for the system and the people it serves becomes toxic to any living organism.

  14. My friends and I do something similar when we go out to eat. If someone is hungry we ask them to join us so long as they are sufficiently polite (They don’t have to thank us for the food but we won’t tolerate it if they harass the server or try to grope / attack someone in the party). We have extended the offer but we don’t force it on them.

  15. Re: “general lack of motivation just to work.”
    I once worked at a company where someone was complaining all day about having too much work to do. This person among others had a habit of shifting work on to my desk. The interesting thing is that I went to this person’s office on a day that the person was “so busy” and the person was playing video games / making personal calls.
    The work piled up on my desk over the months and I began working additional hours (ie. 7am – 6pm with a 15min. with lunch break) without additional pay. The boss looked at my work space and told me to get my act together because the space was too messy. I brought up my work load only at meetings… they knew how many hours I was putting in. I finally left because I was overworked.
    The way I see it is if someone has time to complain all day about being too busy, they aren’t.

  16. Gosh, I feel for you, A S. That’s the thanks good workers get from their bosses: “Get busier!” — while the real cheats who never work still get paid and still collect benefits. I’m glad you were able to leave.
    I agree people who take a job and then complain about it should quickly find another job instead of making everyone around them miserable.

  17. Those that join us for a meal are usually genuinely appreciative, although we have been cussed out once or twice for not giving them money.
    There has been one occasion where it seems to have made some people in the party a bit uncomfortable because they were trying to appear as though they had not noticed the smell which made it more awkward for them since they too wished to invite the homeless person to join us.
    On time we had a vegetarian pizza and I think the person was unhappy that there was no meat. We spent what we had on the pizza there wasn’t exactly more money to buy a separate pizza. And if I am eating with someone who I know is a vegetarian, I’m not going to order a meat pizza just as I wouldn’t order bacon on a pizza if eating and sharing with a friend that keeps Kosher.

  18. I really love that plan of yours A S. It is gracious and it puts the power and the decision in the hands of the person accepting the offer to eat or not to eat. I wouldn’t worry about feeding a particular palate — people can fend for themselves as they wish.

  19. The plan was actually borrowed from those smarter and more humanitarian than I.
    I liked it because it makes me really see the individual as a person, to look them in the eye and listen to their story. It also reminds me to be thankful.
    I found out in a college Economics class that my parents had raised us in a middle class neighborhood while earning less than the “poverty line” and I always had clothes and good food.

  20. They are great people. They found out about food stamps & etc. from other people but refused to use the government that way because they didn’t want to become dependent thereby setting an example for me to live within my means.

  21. That’s an incredibly admirable story, A S! I support the idea of welfare to help people get started or to get back on their feet when they fall — we all fall and we all need some temporary help — the fact your parents wanted to do it all on their own their way must have set a great example for you.