Welfare Incentives Have Merit, but Reforms Must Go Deeper

Article excerpt

Money talks. It talks to the rich and it talks to the poor. But it has a different vocabulary for rich and poor.

A prosperous father promises his teenage daughter a dollar for every A on her report card. Welfare strategists use similar strategies to keep teenage mothers in school.

A welfare program in Ohio, for example, fattens the welfare check by $62 each month that a teenage mother stays in school or returns to school after dropping out. But, like the child whose allowance is docked because of bad grades, a teenage mother who quits school or who has more than two unexcused absences has her welfare check cut by $62.

B.F Skinner, the behavioral psychologist who pushed rewards and punishments as a powerful means of changing behavior, would appreciate this imaginative public boxing of his theory. An Ohio teenage mother with one child, who is eligible for a monthly grant of $274, soon learns that she can earn as much as $336 a month if she attends school and as little as $212 if she doesn't.

The acronym for the Ohio program, LEAP -- for Learning, Earning and Parenting -- emphasizes the main benefit of a high school education: hope for a better job. LEAP also shows that discipline and learning can pay as you go.

Not everybody takes advantage of the program.

In a six-year study of more than 7,000 teenage mothers, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. of New York found 61 percent of teenagers stayed in school when they earned the bonus, compared with 51 percent in a control group who did not. Nearly half the teen dropouts who received economic enticements returned to school, compared with about a third who did not. Such percentages demonstrate promise.

What's striking is that so many teenagers who would earn extra money decided to forgo the bonus and accept the penalty rather than go to school.

This tells us that to many teenage mothers, $62 doesn't mean much, at least not enough to go to school. Some teenage mothers probably have other means of hidden support from their families or even the fathers of their children. …