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The journey's no reward

Using incentives to meet society's goals

by The Pendulum,

A defining principle of capitalism is the reward, the rightful reimbursement of those who excel in their fields, given to those of cunning minds and agile bodies. It is often argued that without incentives, a nation stagnates and economies flounder, acting like a donkey staring back at its owner without a carrot dangled before it, encouraging the animal's forward momentum.
To be sure, there are other ways to persuade the donkey to perform the desired task, but many of these options aren't applicable to modern society.

No employer in his or her right mind would thwack an inefficient worker's bum with a stick. Instead, incentives like raises, promotions and bonuses are dangled before us, giving greater significance, presumably, to our labors.

Workplaces have been inundated with this method of encouragement. Just as salesmen may get a raise for earning the company a certain amount of revenue, a baseball player can earn bonuses for playing a certain number of innings over the course of a season.

But controversy arises when this concept is applied to other facets of society. Two sensitive issues, teen pregnancy and education, are now being exposed to the idea of the dangling carrot, which in these cases comes in the form of cash.

College-Bound Sisters, an organization at UNC Greensboro, pays girls between the ages of 12 and 18 not to become pregnant. Each day they remain childless, a dollar is put into a college fund that can only be collected upon their graduation from high school. All of the money comes from a four-year state grant.

In New York City, the Sparks program pays students in 59 poverty-stricken schools according to their performance on a series of 10 tests. This year, almost two-thirds of participating schools enjoyed higher margins of improvement on state-mandated tests than the average school in the rest of the city.

More than 5,800 students took part in Sparks during the last school year, with fourth graders earning up to $250 and seventh graders netting upwards of $500, depending on their performance.

Theoretically, there's nothing wrong with these plans, provided that every member of society is regarded as an employee in one form or another, with obligations to the overall societal order. Women who receive a college education, as opposed to those giving birth during their teen years, have a better chance at success, so why not give them a monetary push in the right direction?

And if children are continuing to fail state tests despite continued efforts by teachers to spark interest in their studies, then it would seem to make sense that offering money (particularly to students embroiled in poverty) would give them an extra gallon of gas in the tank.

A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology titled, "The effects of pay level on organization-based self-esteem and performance," furthers a long-standing theory that monetary incentives are effective in boosting productivity not because of the beguiling powers of cash, but instead because they are translated by the recipients as representations of their employer's increased faith in their abilities. Enhanced performance stems from this improved sense of self-confidence.

There are problems with translating this study to locations outside of the workplace. If the underlying problem between decreased performance is a deficient sense of self-worth, then shouldn't teachers be putting more emphasis on student confidence, with a particular focus on nurturing them prior to elementary school to get a head start?

And is the success of College-Bound Sisters tied solely to the money, or are the weekly meetings with fellow group members and consolers really the driving force behind the organization's effectiveness?

But, it's also possible to draw more sinister implications from both of these programs. Paying students for good performance at school may encourage them to excel in their studies, but isn't it essentially a form of child labor, particularly if the students' equally impoverished parents apply undue pressure on scholastic success because of the cash they can take from it?

Government-funded programs paying citizens to limit their reproductive activity, birthed from the debased pursuit of eugenics early in the 20th century, have a terrible history. Although College-Bound Sisters is based in a noble cause, where does theapplication of the basic concept stop?

It comes down to whether or not society wishes to encourage good behavior because such conduct is the right and just thing to do, or because the individual can profit from it.
Keep in mind that we all saw just how well the blind pursuit of monetary incentives worked in the finance industry prior to the current recession.