Monday, September 21, 2009

Problem or Solution?

I came across an article this morning and I'm really not quite sure what I think about it. New York is entering a third year of its program to offer cash incentives to poor families who do things like get their kids to school and go to regular medical checkups. At least according to the article, the program seems to be having modest, though not overwhelming, success.

I think that your view on such a program has to depend on what your view on the problem is. Is the breakdown of social services in ghetto communities the result of lack of economic opportunity by the residents or lack of knowledge or lack of incentive or lack of values. That's of course not to say that any of those possibilities are necessarily exclusive of any of the others. Also, by paying people to do what they should probably be doing anyway, are we sending a very wrong message that's going to have longer term repercussions?

The bottom line is that I don't know the answers (and I would be skeptical of anyone who said they did). On the one hand, if it helps people - especially kids - then that's a good thing and is worth supporting. On the other hand, if it sets up a system that undermines the intrinsic value of those behaviors in the long term, is it really helping?

The sad part is, good or bad, we won't really know until it's too late. What's clear now, though, is that this is not a cure for what is fundamentally wrong in poor communities. So even as we hope that this program helps, we need to continue searching for the fundamental bedrock changes that these communities need.

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