I’m getting a lot of inquiries from people at CNN and radio shows asking me to talk about paying at-risk teenagers not to become pregnant. Mainly, people seem to think I’m totally nuts, so let me clarify a few key points.
1) I’m not suggesting we should pay everyone. For example, I don’t think we should offer rewards to menopausal nuns who manage not to get pregnant. That would be a waste of money. Since I am an opinion columnist and not a policy maker, I leave the implementation to others. But personally, I’m a big fan of targeted programs; they are less controversial than universal benefits and you get more bang for the buck. Targeting teenagers who, for example, have an older sister who already had an adolescent pregnancy would be a very, very good idea. (And, in fact, College Bound Sisters does that.) Ditto daughters of teen mothers.
2) People are really hung up on the basic unfairness of my proposal. You know, a lot of variations on: There’s no such thing as a free lunch, you lazy little sluts and out of control liberals who are trying to eat away at more of my paycheck!! And why should “my” money go to someone underserving blah blah and, a related point, won’t subsidies like this just create more dependency and shouldn’t we be cutting, not adding, entitlements blah blah, and not making more citizens beg for handouts blah blah blah?
a) To the guy who asked, indignantly, “Do you expect me to spend my money paying someone else’s daughter not to get pregnant?” Um, excuse me, Sir, but in case you haven’t noticed, you’re spending your money on someone else’s daughter who is already pregnant. Let’s face it, people: these teenage pregnancies cost society a lot of money. Some people are drawing a totally false distinction between direct and indirect financial incentives, but paying a guy to eat brownies, for example, is not actually so different from incentivizing a person to eat high fructose garbage via our agricultural subsidies for corn. They may seem like different incentives because one is more hidden in plain sight, but economically they are similar. it’s important to recognize this so we don’t make a lot of self-righteous assertions about how much government shapes our lives. The answer is: a lot. We should at least be savvy about how we are doing it and use these carrots and sticks in a more rational way.
b) But we’re encouraging laziness! Dependency! Loose morals! I don’t agree at all that this kind of proposal would necessarily create further dependency on government. That attitude assumes there are no positive collateral benefits to paying someone an incentive. But incentives can help teenagers acquire important secondary benefits beyond pregnancy prevention, such as the ability to self-regulate, plan for the future, enlist their peers to practice better behaviors etc. etc. This is because the act of working toward the monetary reward requires those mature skills. You have to learn to exercise patience and forethought to get paid! Period. A lot of teens have no experience working toward a goal, or seeing the value in working toward a goal. Nothing in their lives persuades them to think otherwise. They don’t see the point of looking ahead. (Hence: pregnancy.) The monetary incentive can become, then, not just a way to bring pregnancy rates down but a tool to help teens acquire functional life skills that will make them more productive citizens.
A lot of people won’t accept this line of thinking because they believe financial incentives are by definition morally “wrong,” and will create unhealthy dependence. There’s a distaste for giving “our” money to undeserving people, but we need to get over this flawed mindset or we’ll never solve our most intractable problems. Money is neutral; it’s what we do with it that carries moral weight. We need to acknowledge that a monetary gift could actually help a young person to improve her life. We’re talking about kids who have very little guidance in life, very little moral scaffold. It’s hard even for high-functioning grown-ups to make positive changes, and it’s totally unrealistic to think that a whole underclass of, basically, children are going to grow up knowing how to take care of themselves. We should be digging really deeply for creative solutions to help them take ownership of their lives and I honestly believe that effectively designed financial incentives can be a promising solution.
Our teenage pregnancy rate is a disgrace. We all lead interconnected lives and we can’t keep putting our heads in the sand about the impact of other people’s behavior on our own. Financial incentives have worked in a wide variety of complex settings, including in schools. Let’s give them a chance.