Carrots and Sticks and the politics of teen pregnancy

UnknownTo the folks who think I’m crazy for proposing that we pay kids not to get pregnant, a few questions. Why is it so abhorrent to incentivize people, financially, to behave in certain ways? I’m talking about cases where the incentive would actually decrease the cost to society of the behavior. (One could make a case for monetary rewards even if they incurred extra costs – for the benefit of society in some non-financial way, I suppose, but I’m talking about research that shows that paying people to perform certain behaviors actually cuts social costs.) So what’s the problem, exactly? We use carrots and sticks all the time for behaviors we want to encourage or discourage. For example (courtesy of Adam Glick):

We pay people to go to college: Student Loans
We pay people to get married: Tax breaks for joint return
We pay people to get fat: Farm subsidies for high-fructose corn syrup
We pay people to build houses near rivers: Federal Subsidies for flood insurance
We pay people to donate to a Church: Tax breaks for charitable contributions
We pay people to borrow money:  Deductibility of mortgage
We also pay people not to marry a husband with a job who stays around and takes care of the kids- if this happens you lose your AFDC.

The problem is that we are dishonest about how money works in our society, and this hypocrisy and squeamishness is expensive.

A lot of people have a problem with this kind of proposal because they feel uncomfortable rewarding what they consider badness and laziness and whatnot, ie they believe (as I do) that teenagers should be raised “properly” and taught “values” and “morals” and so forth without having to be paid to do things that should rightly be a) the responsibility of the family or the teenager and b) internally motivated, not externally rewarded. Okay, sure. Let’s visit that fantasy planet for a little while. “Listen up, all you crappy parents and sexually incontinent adolescents: We want a few morals, please!”

imagesGive me a fucking break. The real question is why we’re willing to pay for the consequences of unintended pregnancy without squawking too much – very few people really think we should be denying young women prenatal care or letting their toddlers wander the streets without clothing — but refuse common sense, cost-effective approaches to prevent teen pregnancy in the first place. Unknown-1

Yes, it would  be awesome if people could control themselves better. I would like to be less chubby, but that would require me to stop buying all those sugary, super-sized incentives the government makes readily available to fat asses like me, and I lack the willpower. Sorry. Personally, I would also love it if rich people would stop building their second homes on beaches that will be swept away by global warming and expecting me to foot the costs of construction. I bet you have your own list of things you’d rather not pay for.

We bear all kinds of societal costs, for different reasons, and the point is that we tolerate this uncomfortable reward-and-punishment shtick for most aspects of life but we have blinders on where sexuality and teenagers are concerned. Financial incentives aren’t pretty. Wouldn’t it be so lovely if parents would teach their teenagers some kind of inner motivation to manage their lives in healthy ways? But wait… that’s what financial incentives help them do! There are secondary benefits to offering a financial reward for not getting pregnant. It turns out the act of  waiting for a monetary bonus requires a teenager to develop self-regulation skills, patience, self-reflection, the ability to think about the future… all the things we want teenagers to acquire to become a responsible adult (and the precise things that already-pregnant or impregnating teenagers lack.)

Financial incentives often give people the little boost of motivation they need to take charge of their lives. Think of them as training wheels to help people stand on their own feet. Where’s the shame in pragmatism if it results in fewer pregnancies, lower costs to society, and the possibility of learning a few life lessons? Why can’t we talk more honestly about the costs of our high-handedness where money and the public welfare are concerned?

And here are a few of my favorite comments from today:

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director/author. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
This entry was posted in Children/Teens/Young Adults, Public Policy, Women-related and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Carrots and Sticks and the politics of teen pregnancy

  1. Rick says:

    This is a good article. It’s thought provoking. Values are learned in the HOME! They may be reinforced in church, but they are learned at home. If some parents can’t/won’t teach values, then reward the child for having at least one value., That may lead to them learning another, then another, then another…..

    • Thank you! I agree that the financial reward can be a motivator to become a more principled, responsible person! It’s not a substitute for those values but a tool to achieve them. (And it saves money!)

  2. Jeo says:

    Incentives are fine … but your idea just adds to an already huge problem. But you also are not comparing apples and apples. For example you say we pay people to go to college. Incorrect, we loan people money to do this.

    We don’t pay people to get married. Indeed, married people pay more tax. But let’s remember, it’s our money to start with. The fact that the government imposes a tax does not mean it’s the governments money. It’s not.

    Farm subsidies should be stopped.

    Flood insurance subsidies should be stopped.

    Donations to a church are a deduction from tax liability, not a direct payment.

    Same with mortgage interest. But again, you are taxed on your income, and the interest you pay to borrow someone else’s money (the banks, which by the way, are protected from losing that money by the government if you don’t pay) is deducted from income reduce tax liability. No direct payments are paid … it’s just the government doesn’t get as much of YOUR income because you own a house (which creates jobs, which produce employees, who pay more income taxes).

    Your idea is bad for one simple reason: it further creates a dependent citizenry. It’s the reason we are in the mess we are. Government should NOT be in the business of paying people directly not to have kids. Why not pay me NOT to eat brownies?

    This madness has to STOP.

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