On Incentives and Outcomes.

Average Bro points to a program in North Carolina that pays teenage girls a dollar a day to not get pregnant.

The group College-Bound Sisters was founded at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro by Hazel Brown, a maternity nurse who thought too many teens were having babies.

Brown said she hopes the program, which pays $1 each day to 12-to-18-year-old girls, will keep them from getting pregnant. In addition to remaining pregnancy-free, the girls must also attend weekly meetings.

The program is funded by a four-year grant from the state.

“Our three goals are that they avoid pregnancy, graduate from high school and enroll in college,” Brown said.

Under the program, $7 is deposited into an interest-bearing college fund that the girls can collect once they graduate high school.

Some recent graduates earned more than $2,000 and are an inspiration to those still in the program.

“I might want to be a teacher for a few years and then be a lawyer,” said 12-year-old Chelsey Davis. “I might want to be an actor or singer,” another girl in the program, Amanda Davis, added.

AB’s take on it, however, is pretty strange.

Essentially, they are paying young girls cash money to do something they should probably have the personal desire and willpower to do on their own. Much like the (somewhat successful) act of paying kids to do well in school, you wonder what message is really being conveyed here. Are these girls being taught to value their goodies, or simply that $1/day is better than a sweaty five minutes in the of some random boy’s Momma’s basement? I honestly can’t call it, and that’s likely why God blessed me with two sons instead. … this “pay kids for something they should do for free” thing is getting out of hand. We are already paying kids to simply attend school and show up on time. What’s next? Paying kids to not smoke weed? This is getting outta control.

It’s funny that AB take issue with conservatives for their reaction to the program while offering up a pretty boilerplate social conservative critique of the program of his own. (“Whatever happened to personal responsibility?”) He even tosses in some lazy patriarchy for good measure. The comments sections for the original article is filled with the same idea: these little girls don’t need money, they need some self-esteem and to keep their legs closed.

AB’s argument rests on the assumption that going to school or getting good grades or not getting pregnant in high school isn’t incentivized behavior. But if your parents are professionals and you are expected to go to college, you’re going to receive a steady stream of affirmation and structural encouragement to that end (decent schools, pressure to do well, SAT prep courses, etc.) — so much so that the risks/benefit calculations don’t even need to happen on a conscious level. Your parents went to college, all your classmates are going to college, so why wouldn’t you? For a kid in that situation, the costs of getting pregnant — parental disappointment, social isolation, the end of college plans — would be pretty major. “Personal desire,” as AB puts it, isn’t formed in a vacuum.

But while shame can be a damn good motivator, it’s only as effective as its context. If you don’t know many people who’ve graduated high school and you don’t know anyone who has graduated college or you go to a shitty school, that cost/benefit equation is completely different. Getting pregnant or dropping out of school doesn’t really take anything off the table because going to college was never a likely outcome. The kids in both scenarios are making honest appraisals of their situations and their incentives toward certain life outcomes, and making their decisions accordingly.

“Self-esteem” and “personal responsibility” are kind of beside the point. College-Bound Sisters is trying to approximate the same incentive structure and support systems that middle class kids take as a given, which — whether you agree with how they’re handling it or not — is what has to happen if you want those kids on the margins to aspire to and have middle class outcomes.

Anyway, knowing that middle class teenagers are far less likely to get pregnant and far more likely to go on to college, doesn’t taking AB’s position on “personal responsibility” and “self-esteem” mean implicitly buying the idea that lower-class kids are irresponsible lazy asses who hate themselves?

UPDATE: pprscribe and Leigh make excellent points.


It does annoy me, though, how frequently these programs are portrayed as paying girls “to not get laid” or “to keep their legs closed.” The outcome measure being referenced is “not getting pregnant” (among other requirements, like participation in regular meetings). Presumably obtaining an abortion following conception could keep a girl in the program, so really it is a program discouraging *childbearing*. And certainly sex without conception would not be covered by the program. To frame it as a way to control young female sexuality is just silly to me, and reveals a lot about folks who jump to that conclusion.


I’m a big believer in incentives, and I’m a big believer in responding to the particular risks and opportunities that different groups (e.g., teen girls) face.  But I find the framing of this initiative troubling, as it seems to me it once again reduces women to our reproductive capacity, rather than incorporating and responding to the risk of teen pregnancy as one particular obstacle for low-income young women among many on the path to college and out of poverty.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • I don’t actually blame AB for jumping immediately to the “why can’t we just encourage personal responsibility” solution; one of the terrifying things about assuming some degree of rationality among actors is that you realize that there is a whole host of undesirable – or even “deviant” – behavior which is perfectly rational given the circumstances. And if you accept that, 9 times out of 10, you have no choice but to acknowledge that as a society, we do a horrible job of deincentivizing rational, destructive behavior. Which isn’t a particularly nice thing to think about.

  • pprscribe

    Imagine a scholarship program in college where students receive a stipend, in sum lump sum, that works out to being some small figure per day (say, $1-$10/day over 2 semesters). In order to continue the program, students must, say (a) meet weekly with an advisor, (b) maintain a minimal grade point average, (c) not get into any academic or other disciplinary trouble on campus or outside of campus.

    Would these students be considered to be “being paid” for something–not get into trouble and continue to make good grades–“they should strive to do anyway”? Would the stipend be seen as “payment”/”incentive” and/or a benefit of being selected for the program?

    I am not saying that this particular program is or is not a good idea. Just that some of us can be judgmental when it comes to failing to see the links between these types of programs, and programs that we ourselves may have benefitted from.

    It does annoy me, though, how frequently these programs are portrayed as paying girls “to not get laid” or “to keep their legs closed.” The outcome measure being referenced is “not getting pregnant” (among other requirements, like participation in regular meetings). Presumably obtaining an abortion following conception could keep a girl in the program, so really it is a program discouraging *childbearing*. And certainly sex without conception would not be covered by the program. To frame it as a way to control young female sexuality is just silly to me, and reveals a lot about folks who jump to that conclusion.

  • Yes to the questions in the post.

    Yes also to Leigh; but I wonder to what extent “don’t get pregnant” basically *is* “stay in school” for girls in some schools. I really don’t know the answer, but I think it’s right that one of the biggest factors in girls’s avoiding pregnancy has been shown to be whether or not they have a sense of a future aside from that. And presumably the promise of having some money saved up would help. I know that for my own kid, his savings account is a *huge* part of his imagining his future.

  • I’m not a supporter of token commodities to reinforce/encourage desired behavior. I am also not clear from the original article whether or not the program in question promotes abstinence. If they’re smart, the program isn’t promoting abstinence. Boys and girls need to be taught safe, correct and effective methods for lessening the chances of pregnancy. Which brings up another point: Why is it that boys aren’t being offered token commodities to keep it zipped up? Why do these programs always targeting only girls? If we’re going to use token commodities, then boys and girls should be included. Again, I don’t agree with the approach, but, if it is going to be used, include both genders.

    The bottom line is this: Whether a female is 16 or 36, it must be understood by her that every time she engages in sexual behavior that increases the likelihood of procreating, she’s taking a chance. That’s with or without birth control. How many “Pill” or “condom” babies are now amongst us? That said, the consistent and proper use of effective forms of birth control should, without question, be used, not to mention practices that will lesson the likelihood of contracting an STI.

  • You’ve got to chant it at least 5 times and there’s some spinning in circles and jazz hands involved. But yeah, then success!! :)

  • ladyfresh

    it’s a capitalist society. its the rare person in this society does anything without financial or political incentives. you can address the moral issue in the program without directly addressing what motivates society overall. i’m finding the pedestal a bit annoying. while i understand ideally we these should be our motives, reality is that its a major incentive. we don’t work 9-5 jobs for the joy of it we do it for the money.

  • Okay. So you’re going the taking-my-ball-and-going-home route?

    G.D., let’s put this tactic to bed. It doesn’t work with me.I am contributing to the free marketplace of ideas, of which your blog is a part, and I chose to comment on your blog. I don’t need to convince you. It would be nice, but I don’t need to convince you. I realize that you have a stake in getting people to support your point of view. That’s why we write, but we should also be open to other points of view.

    No thoughts on the pecuniary and social motivations of the “best and brightest”? Are they something else? Was I off-base? the so-called, “best and brightest” are motivated by all sorts of things. But, I do believe that this group possesses a set of behaviors, both intrinsically and extrinisically motivated, which contributes.

    “…but still maintain that such programs as the one about which you write don’t work in the long run.”

    Is there evidence of this somewhere, or is this a hunch of yours?

    No; not a hunch. Just a lot of years spent in the classroom, and deciding some years ago, after conversations with others and my own beliefs, that token economies don’t speak to me as a teacher.

  • G.D. I’ve also read a lot of things by Alfie Kohn. He talks a lot about token economies, and why they’re not effective. My beliefs were also shaped by Mr. Kohn’s writings. Here’s one quote that made me really question token economies

    Last, I taught at a school, for six years, where grades weren’t issued to students. This environment helped to shape my thinking about external motivators and learning. I think it also applies to programs like the one about which you wrote.

  • I neglected to post the quote:

    “Rewards, like punishments, produce only one thing: temporary obedience,” explains Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. “They never help kids think more deeply or become more enthusiastic about learning. I want to believe that at least the goal of these programs is admirable, even if the method is terrible. Sadly, however, schools often use these incentives not to promote meaningful learning but merely to raise scores on bad tests to make the adults look good.”

  • “the so-called, “best and brightest” are motivated by all sorts of things. But, I do believe that this group possesses a set of behaviors, both intrinsically and extrinisically motivated, which contributes.”

    How is the same not true for elementary and high school students? G.D. I would hope that at the elementary level, children are learning how to learn, and are discovering who they are and the world in which they live. Which is why token economies is such a depressing concept to me: it begins in elementary school. By the time a young person reaches high school, they begin to respond, in earnest to the intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

    “Interesting. So there were no other benchmarks in place to monitor student learning? Quarterly meetings with parents? Were the kids just all kept together by age group? Or did they progress from say, fifth grade to sixth grade? (If so, don’t the social benefits of staying with your peers vs. getting held back — to say nothing of disappointing your parents — count as an incentive?)”

    “What do you think should happen to a kid who many not be “self-motivated” but find himself on the margins, like the girls above? Do you try to instill it? How do you do that without affirmation?”

    These aren’t rhetorical questions. I’m seriously intrigued by this.

    The school is a private school, and is able to operate according to a unique set of beliefs and practices. The over-riding belief is that students receive learning as well as are the agents of their learning. Students are motivated by right behavior because it benefits not only them, but also the group, the community, and not because something “bad” will happen to them. There were expulsions, because there were students who violated the community trust, i.e. drugs. There are lots of conversations in such a learning environment, because through the sharing of ideas, hopefully people can adopt behaviors that will benefit them in the long run. Students are assessed according to whatever goals have been established for the course, but, the student is measured on the basis of his/her 100%. So, instead of report cards, students are issued very long and detailed narratives. Formal meetings with parents took place twice a year, and then more as needed. There were students who needed more nurturing, and we worked with those students. We worked to find out why the student was struggling, and what would in fact motivate him/her. As far as affirmation: Students were affirmed on the basis of whether or not they were meeting learning goals, and not whether they could earn an “A”. A student who could contribute to class, make progress, and engage with others was considered successful. An interesting learning environment. There were students at the school who were on a five-year plan, i.e. re-do a grade, because, after extensive conversations, it was decided, and with student input, that this was the best way to go. There were grades, but, not as firmly carved out as in most other schools. There was actually a great deal of interaction amongst students between grades, and so the cliquiness of grade affiliation was less significant.

  • One of my commenters at Pov in Amer left some interesting links that teen pregnancy is an overblown crisis, and that it may be economically “rewarding” for society:


  • Zesi

    I’m chewing this whole incentivizing debate, and I think this program sounds pretty good because it is a program. There seems to be more than “here’s the money” and it’s a great external motivator, in my opinion, because the reward is delayed and contingent upon both not getting pregnant and, in a kind of backdoor way, also encourages better grades (after all, if you’re going to college, you better get those grades up). Additionally, these girls have to do something beyond just not getting pregnant–they have to attend weekly meetings too.

    I am not sure how I feel about the money for grades programs, though. It makes me wonder if we’re just desperate, and really aren’t interested in other types of investment in youth. On the other hand, it’s not much different than parents giving money for good grades. Money is a quick motivator, but it’s not the only thing out there that can get kids to work. A lot of students want to be cared about, praised, and able to feel safe, which is something that money can’t provide. I wonder if kids who get paid by some external program are more likely to go on to college or tech school than kids from similar backgrounds who have good grades also? You hope by the time they’re 18 that their investment in education isn’t just a financial arrangement. Even though these students could probably get a good amount of aid, the college system is already markedly different from the free public education system, and would one more difference break the bank?

    Jury’s still out on money for grades, but the pregnancy program gets a gold star,