June 25, 2007

The Bloomberg Bribery Experiment

By: David White

Just one day before New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg fueled speculation of a White House bid by bolting from the Republican Party, his office released detailed plans for Opportunity NYC — Bloomberg’s privately-funded, anti-poverty initiative.

Under the two-year experiment, New York City will offer cash rewards to about 13,000 low-income city residents for “[making] decisions that will improve their prospects for the future.”

For instance, participant families would receive $25 per child, per month for making sure their kids go to school, $50 per head for obtaining library cards, and $25 for attending parent-teacher conferences. A yearly physical would net $200 for each family member, and participants would receive $100 for each family member who sees the dentist every six months. Adults with full-time, steady employment would receive $150 per month for maintaining their jobs.

In other words, New York City plans to pay its residents for simply behaving as they already should. But unfortunately for Bloomberg, the economic incentives to do so already exist.

Consider a college education. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a college graduate will earn an average of $51,000 each year for his career. A high school diploma, on the other hand, yields just $28,000 a year. If one works for 45 years, that’s a difference of more than $1 million.

Marriage, a willingness to follow the law, and responsible money management yield similar benefits.

Further, as a New York Post editorial explained, “the program confuses cause with effect.” After all, the Post went on to say, “a student isn’t successful because he holds a library card; he gets a library card because it contributes to success.”

Consequently, Bloomberg’s plan is terribly misguided. And it’s also offensive.

Just look at the $20 per head that participating families will receive for enrolling in Medicaid, a program that’s already free. As Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute wrote, “[this] assumes that poor New Yorkers are so unable to act in their best interest that they will not even take advantage of an existing, well-publicized government program without the promise of additional short-term cash.”

Put another way, isn’t it awfully condescending for Mayor Bloomberg to surmise that inner city parents would only be willing to send their children to school if they’re bribed to do so? And aren’t these payments insulting to the parents who already take their children to school each day?

Moreover, once it’s appropriate for the government to pay people for simply behaving as they already should, where does it end? If inner city teens are rewarded for not skipping school, why not reward them for not dealing drugs? Logically, there’s no difference.

If Bloomberg’s program is deemed a success, then the city could expand it to all low-income residents in just two years, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

At that point, low-income children across New York City will learn that personal responsibility and self-motivation are utterly undeserving of respect. And only actions that carry the promise of a cash handout will be valued.

David White, a writer in Washington, is a regular columnist for Brainwash. He is also the host and producer of Inside Washington Weekly, a weekly podcast from America’s Future Foundation.