2006-09-29 / Editorial/Opinion


Paying People To Do The Right Thing Is Problematic

The question of the day is, should the city pay its residents to do the right thing, things that most of us do every day without thought: sending your kids to school; showing up for work each day; showing up for medical appointments, studying for exams? The question arises because Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed to do just that for those who are experiencing "long-term poverty." The Mayor's plan would cost about $24 million a year, at least at the beginning of the payoffs, and would be funded through private philanthropy. The fact that private money is going to be used does little to ameliorate the fact that the cash payment plan envisioned by the mayor is plain wrong for a number of reasons. Those who pushed a similar incentive plan, called "behavior modification" in the special education community in the late 1980's quickly found that students who worked under the plan for a time then expected to be "paid" for everything positive that they did. "Paying people to act in their own self-interest is dangerous," one expert said. "It sets up the expectation that you can't be expected to do something in your self interest without being paid for it." The same would happen with Bloomberg's plan. Then, of course, the list of responsible behaviors for which people will be paid will inevitably grow. How about going to school and attending classes. How about going to school and attending classes and not hitting other students. How about bathing your kids, feeding them, taking them to be vaccinated, and dressing them adequately in the winter? How about paying your rent on time, keeping your home clean, throwing the garbage in the proper receptacles, working to better your community? How about not committing a crime, not carrying a gun, not shooting somebody? The list could go on and on, but you see the problems inherent in paying people to do the right thing. Then, of course there is the problem of who do you pay to do all of these things? It all becomes the proverbial "slippery slope." We would hope that calmer heads would prevail and that the poverty lobby that recommended this to the mayor in the first place would see the error of their ways. We need more people to do the right thing, but bribing them to do it is not the right way.

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