Using Incentives to Change How Teenagers Spend Their Time

The Effects of New York City’s Conditional Cash Transfer Program

By Pamela Morris, J. Lawrence Aber, Sharon Wolf, Juliette Berg

This report presents the results of an innovative study designed to provide a more detailed understanding of how parents and their teenage children were affected by the Opportunity NYC-Family Rewards program, a comprehensive conditional cash transfer program. The three-year program, launched by the Center for Economic Opportunity in the Mayor’s Office of the City of New York in 2007, offered cash assistance to low-income families to reduce economic hardship. The cash incentives were tied to activities and outcomes in children’s education, family preventive health care, and parents’ employment, in the hopes of increasing families’ "human capital" and reducing their poverty in the long term.

An evaluation by MDRC of the first two years of the Family Rewards program, published in 2010, found that it had positive effects on families’ economic well-being and mixed effects on children’s education, family health care, and parents’ employment. For example, while the program did not affect school outcomes for younger children, it substantially boosted the achievement of a subset of older children who were better prepared for high school when they entered the program in the ninth grade. How the program affected teenagers and their parents is the focus of this study, which has been embedded in MDRCs continuing core evaluation of the program. This report addresses key "pathways" that may underlie any effects of the program on teenagers (such as changes in the way teenagers spent their time) as well as outcomes that were not targeted but that the program may have affected (such as teenagers’ mental health, aggressive behavior, or substance use.)

Key Findings

Findings show that the Family Rewards program:

  • Changed how teenagers spent their time. For the subgroup of academically proficient teenagers, it increased the proportion of those who engaged primarily in academic activities and reduced the proportion who engaged primarily in social activities;
  • Increased parents’ spending on school-related and leisure expenses and increased the proportion of parents who saved for their children’s future education;
  • Had no effects on parents’ monitoring of their teenage children’s activities or behavior and did not increase parent-teenager conflict or teenagers’ depression or anxiety;
  • Had no effects on teenagers’ sense of academic competence or their engagement in school but substantially reduced their problem behavior, such as aggression and substance use;
  • Did not reduce teenagers’ intrinsic motivation by paying them rewards for school attendance and academic achievement.

This study of families with teenage children who participated in Family Rewards adds important information that will enhance understanding of the results of the core evaluation of the program. The next report on Family Rewards will examine the results after three years of the program; a final report will include two years of postprogram follow-up.

Document Details

Publication Type
September 2012
Morris, Pamela, J. Lawrence Aber, Sharon Wolf, and Juliette Berg. 2012. Using Incentives to Change How Teenagers Spend Their Time . New York: MDRC.