Learning Together

How Families Responded to Education Incentives in New York City’s Conditional Cash Transfer Program

By David M. Greenberg, Nadine Dechausay, Carolyn Fraker

In 2007, New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity launched Opportunity NYC-Family Rewards, an experimental, privately funded, conditional cash transfer (CCT) program to help families break the cycle of poverty. Family Rewards provided payments to low-income families in six of the city’s poorest communities for achieving specific goals related to health, education, and employment. The demonstration program ended as planned in August 2010, although its evaluation is ongoing.

This qualitative report focuses on Family Rewards’ educational incentives and the variety of ways that parents and children interacted with each other in relation to these incentives. Unlike other educational incentives programs across the country, Family Rewards relied heavily on parents to explain the program to younger children and to find ways of supporting their children’s learning in school. While parents received incentives for their younger children’s activities in Family Rewards, high school students received incentives directly and so were more directly exposed to the program.

Key Findings

  • Most parents and children embraced the broad goals of Family Rewards, viewing the program as an "opportunity" for children and an investment in their academic future. It was not clear when the study began how families would view the program, but parents and children believed that Family Rewards was a worthwhile idea because they felt it had the potential to support children’s academic performance and their success over time.

  • Not all parents knew how to help improve their children’s educational performance beyond offering general encouragement. Many parents needed assistance in identifying additional strategies that they could use to help support their children’s learning, although some parents used reward payments for after-school activities or tutoring.

  • Many parents were reluctant to discuss the incentives with younger children, who had only a limited knowledge of the program as a result. High school students were much better informed. Some parents did not want to put financial pressure on their younger children, while others found creative ways to talk about incentives with them. Most likely as a result of the program being marketed directly to them, high school students had a high degree of awareness about the program, and their parents reported that they were more likely to remind them of tasks that had to be completed in order to receive rewards.

  • Family Rewards payments helped strengthen some better-prepared high school students’ belief that they were "on track" to graduation, college, and a better future, which reinforced their motivation. Some highly motivated and generally proficient high school students used rewards to save for college and to pay for educationally enriching experiences.

MDRC will continue to track participants and will present longer-term findings to help clarify the success of the initiative in encouraging educational, health, and employment outcomes.

Document Details

Publication Type
May 2011
Greenberg, David M., Nadine Dechausay, and Carolyn Fraker. 2011. Learning Together. New York: MDRC.