Helping and When it Doesn’t

There is much being said by politicians these days about helping the poor.  The problem is that everything done by Congress for the past 40 years has not helped.  Earned Income Tax Credit, Food Stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and other programs by church, charity and the government have done little to help people escape from poverty.  Poverty levels, as defined by the U.S. Government, have remained between 14 and 15% since 1970. After the trillions of tax dollars that have been spent over that time period taxpayers and the poor deserve better.  If the goal of this expenditure is to lift people out of poverty, it doesn’t.  Something is terribly wrong. We have the same problem with foreign aid.  How many friends have we made with the hundreds of billions of dollars spent in the last decade -- Afghanistan?  Iraq? Pakistan? Egypt?   The desire to help the poor in the U.S. and in the developing countries of the world is commendable. 

The intent is correct; the impact is minimal. This week when the U.S. Government was considering withholding aid to Egypt in the light of the Americans, who were imprisoned there, I couldn’t help but think of the movie from the 50’s starring Peter Sellers titled, The Mouse that roared.  The plot involved the leaders of The Duchy of Grand Fenwick who decided that the only way the country could get out of its economic woes was to declare war on the United States, lose and accept the traditional foreign aid. The problem in both these situations is that the contingencies of reinforcement are wrong.  People in charge of dispensing billions of dollars seem unaware of what behaviors they are reinforcing when they give out the money.  The way it appears to be done is akin to a situation that is mishandled by many parents every day.  They say to a crying or whining child, “If you will stop crying, I will get it for you.”  While on the face of it, it seems right.  The problem is that the next time they want something they will cry because in order to stop crying, you must first start crying.  The behavior chain that is strengthened by this tactic is: start crying; stop crying; get something you want. Reinforcement strengthens the behavior required to get it.  Some people are helped when you give them money. Academic scholarships are typically effective because the classes of behaviors that are usually rewarded are industriousness and academic achievement. 

The hard-working poor often need help, and the help, money or otherwise, is usually productive.  By productive I mean that the person uses the money or other resources wisely and is more independent as a result.  However, giving street beggars money increases begging.  It almost never does anything to help the person become independent.  Actually it does the opposite.  It makes them dependent on the largess of the passersby. Since money is such a powerful motivator it must be used carefully.  It can be used to create good or evil, productivity or idleness, efficiency or wastefulness, competition or cooperation.  Whether the former or the latter, it is determined by the contingency of reinforcement, that is, what one actually has to do to get the reinforcement.  If all candidates for public office have to do to get people to vote for them is to make a promise, then what s/he will be good at in office is making promises, not necessarily good at delivering what was promised.  If you give people who are not industrious money for promising they will spend it wisely, don’t be surprised when they waste the money and come back with a promise not to do it next time.  If a beggar wins the lottery, it is unlikely that he will be prosperous years later.

 As Tug McGraw, famous, or infamous, pitcher of the New York Mets once said about how he would spend his plush salary, “Ninety percent I’ll spend on good times, women and Irish whiskey.  The other ten percent I’ll probably waste.” I have often said that if you give someone something for nothing, you will make him/her “good for nothing.”  There is a body of research that shows that non-contingent reinforcement decreases motivation and may degrade performance.  Whether at home, in the workplace or even in social relationships, consider the behavior that is being reinforced.   For example, a chore-based allowance is better for children than a weekly allowance since completing chores is required to get the reinforcement.  The weekly allowance becomes an entitlement since being a member of the family is the reinforcement contingency that entitles the child to the money.  Even though the chore-based allowance produces competence and confidence, the weekly one is more preferred by parents because it is easier for them to administer than a chore-based one, where follow-up is necessary.  Think earn. The science of behavior has demonstrated how to use money to help people be more independent and self-reliable at home, at work, in the community and how to create friends of America abroad.  The secret is in knowing the science of behavior.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.