NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 31, 2008

Until a decade ago, the town of Paso de Coyutla was one of the most marginalized places in Mexico, where men scratched out a living farming and children left school too early and were robbed of a future by the need to work.

However, the town has transformed itself in the past decade through a program called Opportunidades.  The program gives the poor cash, but unlike traditional welfare programs, it conditions the receipt of cash on activities designed to break the culture of poverty.  For example:

  • One mother, Solis, gets $61 a month on the condition that her daughter Maleny attends school and maintains good attendance.
  • She also receives another $27 a month food grant if she takes her family to regular preventive health checkups at Paso de Coyutla's clinic.
  • She must also attend a monthly workshop on a health topic, like purifying water.
  • The total grants the family receives come to almost as much as her husband Hernandez earns farming.

At least 30 countries have adopted Oportunidades or are experimenting with some form of conditional payments, including Turkey, Cambodia, and Bangladesh. 

Even New York City is testing the Oportunidades model in neighborhoods where poverty is passed down from parent to child.  For instance:

  • Families enrolled in the program receive $25 to $50 a month per child if their school-age children maintain a 95 percent attendance rate.
  • Beneficiaries also receive $150 a month for holding down a full-time job.
  • A family that completes all requirements can make more than $4,000 a year.

Lawrence Mead, a political science professor at New York University, calls it "the new paternalism."  The nanny state offered unconditional love; the new paternalism is tough love, aimed at smashing the culture of poverty.

Source:  Tina Rosenberg, "A Payoff Out of Poverty?" New York Times Magazine, December 21, 2008.

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