Opportunities vs. Oportunidades
Three years ago New York City launched Opportunity NYC, an ambitious experiment to see if low-income, mostly single mothers could effectively be bribed to be more responsible parents. The idea was modeled on a successful Mexican program called Oportunidades, which makes cash payments to parents who keep their kids in school, seek preventive health care and improve their nutrition. In New York, the program paid mothers to do things like take their children to the dentist ($100), or ensure their kids were attending school ($25 to $50 per month).
It didn’t work. As the New York Times recently reported, the city will be pulling the plug on the project this August after disbursing $14 million to 2,400 families (and spending another $20 million to manage and research the program). Only minor behavior changes ensued. Researchers will continue monitoring the results for another three years. But it’s worth paying attention to this experiment especially in light of the push to reexamine monetary incentives for doctors and teachers.
Getting people to change their behavior is never easy. One clue about what might have gone wrong can be found in a 1965 study, which examined whether Yale University students would go for a vaccination after seeing a film depicting the horrors of tetanus. Although the films terrified the students, and many said they intended to get shots, only 3% actually did.
So the researchers made two simple adjustments. As students were leaving the film, researchers handed them a campus map (indicating precisely where the health center was located) and asked them to decide on an appointment time. Compliance jumped to 28%, almost a ten-fold increase. The researchers concluded that behavior change often hinges less on cost-benefit analysis than on “channel factors” — minor details that make it easy to follow a path of action.
Why did Mexico’s Oportunidades succeed where its American counterpart failed? Perhaps because the majority of the program’s beneficiaries live in rural areas with less than 2,500 residents, so they are likely to be on more familiar terms with neighbors, community organizations, and local government officials. Walking into a small town administrative office (think of a U.S. post office in the countryside) is very different from downloading forms from the Internet and figuring out how to engage with the impersonal network of city services. Maybe New York’s next experiment should be to look for ways to make it easy for low-income people to navigate through the bureaucracy. That could make all the difference.
Photo: AP/Rober Mecea