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The response to last week’s post regarding incentivized parenting ™ generated some great debate.  Many of the comments, specifically those from a handful of teachers in low income schools, were supportive of the idea to tie student performance to welfare benefits (see here). I think that is promising, especially considering that those teachers are generally concerned with the wellbeing of the students they teach (although an argument could be made that the focus on teacher accountability is shifting teachers’ priorities away from what is best for the students).

Another reader, with some interesting credibility, is also supportive of the idea to tie welfare benefits to academic performance, although she has some reservations:

“I love this idea, as a former welfare recipient and a former case worker in the very same welfare-to-work program I was a client in. One issue that scares me to think about is the backlash this would cause for kids.”

And there were many other comments that raised critical concerns regarding the implementation of a program that has the potential to strip poor families of resources. I have done my best to respond to these concerns and keep the discussion going, but the shelf life of a blog post is only a few days and many readers have surely moved on.  With that in mind, I wanted to keep the issue of incentivized parenting alive by discussing some related programs that were featured in a New York Times article from 2011.

The article looks at specific social programs in Brazil and Mexico that have achieved dramatic success. It is very possible that some of the elements from these programs could be successfully adopted at state or federal levels in America, specifically to improve education and cyclical poverty.

Of note in the article is the fact that poverty levels in Brazil (between 2003 and 2009) fell from 22% to 7%.  (In 2011, the poverty rate in the U.S. was 15%) The reduction in Brazil’s poverty is specifically attributed to “a single social program that is now transforming how countries all over the world help their poor.”

The generic term for the program is conditional cash transfers.  The idea is to give regular payments to poor families, in the form of cash or electronic transfers into their bank accounts, if they meet certain requirements.  The requirements vary, but many countries employ those used by Mexico: families must keep their children in school and go for regular medical checkups, and mom must attend workshops on subjects like nutrition or disease prevention.  The payments almost always go to women, as they are the most likely to spend the money on their families.  The elegant idea behind conditional cash transfers is to combat poverty today while breaking the cycle of poverty for tomorrow.

Now, there are two major differences between the conditional cash transfer programs utilized abroad and the incentivized parenting program being proposed in Tennessee.

Difference #1: The CCT programs serve as an additional financial reward on top of a minimal welfare stipend, whereas the Tennessee program would (potentially) cut into an existing benefit. The ultimate result is the same: parents that raise children to focus on education get more money than parents who neglect their children when it comes to education.

Difference #2: The CCT programs only seem to be focused on attendance, whereas the Tennessee program accounts for academic progress. However, the NYT article does mention that the requirements for CCT programs used in other countries do vary.

The results of the CCT programs, as they relate to education, are incredible:

The research indicates that conditional cash transfer programs in Mexico and Brazil do keep people healthier, and keep kids in school.

Children in Oportunidades (Mexico’s CCT program) repeat fewer grades and stay in school longer.  Child labor has dropped.  In rural areas, the percentage of children entering middle school has risen 42 percent.  High school inscription in rural areas has risen by a whopping 85 percent. The strongest effects on education are found in families where the mothers have the lowest schooling levels.  Indigenous Mexicans have particularly benefited, staying in school longer.

Bolsa Familia is having a similar impact in Brazil.  One recent study found that it increases school attendance and advancement — particularly in the northeast, the region of Brazil where school attendance is lowest, and particularly for older girls, who are at greatest risk of dropping out.

The fact that CCT programs focus on attendance and the Tennessee proposal focuses on academics will lead some small-minded critics to dismiss any comparison between the two as apples to oranges. This would be a mistake. The CCT programs are incentivizing what the unwritten social contracts of Brazil and Mexico have deemed as acceptable parenting (i.e. sending children to school). The Tennessee plan goes a step further, as it should, and deems acceptable parenting as doing something (like attending parent/teacher conferences) to help ensure children meet minimum academic standards.

Incentivizing parenting through CCT programs works. The biggest challenge for implementing a similar solution in America is strictly political. Liberals oppose less government money for the poor, and conservatives oppose more government money for the poor. With that reality in mind, the Tennessee proposal is perfectly logical because it doesn’t automatically reduce or increase benefits to any family. Under the Tennessee plan, all parents have the chance to maintain their government benefits by simply getting involved in their children’s education when and if those children do not meet minimum expectations. Any opposition to this idea is truly giving those children less than they need, as a lack of education equals a lack of opportunity for escaping a lifetime of poverty.