ATLANTA — When Judge Gilbert Burnett retired from a lifetime of sentencing criminals, he set out to do something the law never allowed him to do: keep crime from happening in the first place.
He chose reducing teen pregnancy as his goal, and he worked with experts to design prevention courses. Then, to make sure he reached the girls who most needed his message, the judge built incentives into his plan - a chance to win $25 at each meeting they attended and $5,000 after a year in his program.
That's where he hit a snag. The county commissioners in Wilmington, N.C., have so far refused to approve Judge Burnett's program, citing his motivational methods.
"I just had a philosophical problem with paying people money to do what's right," says Bill Caster of the New Hanover County Commission. "If we've got to bribe kids, something's wrong."
It's a quandary that's popping up nationwide as a growing number of social-service programs turn to money as a motivator. For some, cash incentives are a means to a greater good, but to others they erode the moral foundations of the country.
Proponents argue that these kinds of pocketbook incentives are already an intrinsic part of life in America. What does the military do to entice people to enlist? It promises to pay thousands of dollars in college costs after a tour of duty.
What about contests that give smokers cash prizes to stop smoking, or car-insurance policies that offer lower premiums for those with good driving records?
"A lot of people say that children should not be rewarded for doing the right thing, and they're absolutely right. Neither should parents, but they are," says James Stokes, president of the Dekalb County, Ga., chapter of 100 Black Men of America. His group has developed a program in which students will be paid $100 each time they turn in an individual who brings a gun to school.
The power of gold
Critics say programs like Burnett's send a skewed message to the youths they target, making money the goal rather than good behavior. The projects typically single out an action - smoking, taking drugs, getting pregnant - and offer a reward for abstaining from it. What they often don't do, detractors say, is teach the life lessons behind the actions: how to resist temptation or how to love.
"Teaching those larger lessons takes too much work. We want a quick fix," says Brett Webb-Mitchell, professor of Christian nurturing at Duke University's Divinity School in Durham, N.C. "But what we end up saying is that money can solve any problem."
The moral questions are resonating louder now that teens are offered financial carrots at every turn - from projects aimed at removing guns and drugs from schools to plans encouraging students to attend classes and keep up their grades.
In Fayette County, Ga., students who volunteer to be tested for drugs and show no trace of them in their systems will receive cards providing them with discounts at local stores, restaurants, and movie theaters.
More than 50 cities and counties in the US have started gun buy-back programs that pay teens to turn in weapons to authorities. Variations on this include a toy gun buy-back, in which children who hand in toy guns can exchange them for other toys, and weapon tip lines, like the one announced this year in Dekalb County, Ga., that pay students for information they give on who has guns in school.
Several state welfare programs offer cash bonuses to teen mothers on public assistance who go to school. In Ohio, where LEAP, the first statewide program of this kind began in 1989, the welfare office pays $62 a month extra to those who stay in school and docks them the same amount if they are excessively absent or drop out.
The Learning, Earning, and Parenting (LEAP) example is one of the few cases where the effectiveness of financial incentives has been tested. The use of money is justifiable, proponents say, because it's the one thing that may actually spark students to stay in school or off drugs.
Manpower Research Demonstration Corp., a New York-based company that designs and evaluates welfare programs, found that while the LEAP incentives increased school enrollment and attendance, they did not improve graduation rates or spur teens who had already dropped out to go back to school.
For Burnett, though, the problem of teen pregnancy is too big just to sit on the sidelines. "Yes, these lessons ought to be taught in the home," he says. "But when you've got a 12-year-old girl whose mother is a drug addict and her daddy's in prison, who teaches her? She doesn't have a mom. So what do we do? Forget about her?"
He says door prizes and doughnuts have drawn public-housing tenants to meetings in North Carolina, and he believes the prizes will bring girls to the pregnancy-prevention sessions.
But even if paying girls to prevent pregnancy does work in this experiment, many in the public will still be uncomfortable with the practice. That's because it represents public agencies taking a larger role in teaching morality, says Steve Tipton, professor of sociology and ethics at Emory University in Atlanta.
Who teaches what
As public institutions assume more responsibility for the moral teachings long the purview of family and church, morality begins to change, he says. "Public institutions think about right and wrong, about moral responsibility, in different ways." Paying bills and honoring contracts are a type of institutional morality, he says. So it makes sense in this context to pay for services rendered - even if those "services" are as familiar as telling the truth and keeping promises.
"It's an 'economizing' of truth-telling or personally responsible behavior," Mr. Tipton says. "That's a little bit troubling, at least if we wonder why it's necessary to pay someone to be good or virtuous."