Parental Responsibility for Children's Behavior-BECKER
The French government recently proposed that parents lose some of their welfare and other benefits if their children miss too many days of school. This is part of the government's response to the series of riots in their segregated suburbs by children of mainly Muslim immigrant families (Posner and I discussed aspects of these riots a couple of weeks ago). The proposal raises important questions about the obligations and responsibilities of parents for their children‚Äôs upbringing and behavior.
My view is that it is essential for governments to use both the "carrot" and the "stick" to encourage parents to control more closely various aspects of their children's upbringing that can harm both the children and society at large. The French proposal is aimed in particular at the high rate of school dropouts and irregular school attendance among immigrant African children who live in low income and high crime suburbs. The lack of marketable skills, along with the highly regulated and rigid French labor market, contribute to an unemployment rate among these youths that some French economists estimate at over 40 per cent. A large fraction of African immigrant young men and women have never held a regular job. It is debatable how much their unemployment and low earning potential contributed to the riots- I believe it played some role. But it is not debatable that their lack of education and training, combined with the serious defects of the French labor market, has condemned these children to a bleak economic future.
Clearly, not all children-immigrant or native born- will benefit from a university education, or even from completing secondary school. This presumably is why the French government has also proposed combining incentives for better parental monitoring of school attendance for younger children with greater availability of vocational education for children aged 14-16. But more or less everyone can benefit in the modern knowledge-based economy from a basic education through the ninth grade or so. And children should be able to get a decent education through these grades so that they find out if they are suitable or interested in pursuing their education much further.
The French government provides rather generous benefits to immigrant and other poor families through welfare programs, sizable subsidies to families that have two or more children, earned income credits, and in other ways. To earn full benefits, the new proposal would require parents to monitor their children sufficiently to see that they attend school regularly. The government could also reduce benefits to parents of children between the ages of 14 and 17 if the children commit crimes and engage in other types of anti-social behavior. After seventeen, the children are essentially adults, and are often beyond parental control.
An alternative to punishing parents would be to give poor parents bonuses from the state- to use the "carrot" instead of the "stick"- when their children attend school regularly, do well at school, do not engage in delinquent behavior, get regular health checkups, and the like. A large-scale program along such lines that covers over two million families, called Progresa, has been operating in Mexico for over a decade, while Brazil and several other countries have similar programs.
In the Mexican program, mainly poor rural families receive a monthly stipend for each of their children between the ages of about eight and fourteen that do not miss many classes (teachers keep attendance records), do reasonably well at school, go for regular health checkups, and meet a few other criteria. The stipends are a little larger for girls since they traditionally receive much less schooling in these rural families. This program aims to reduce child labor and further the education of poor children by giving parents a financial incentive to keep their children in school much longer than has been common. Mexico already has minimum schooling laws, but the government is reluctant to punish poor families who violate these laws by sending their children out to work instead.
Economists both inside and outside of Mexico have evaluated the effects of Progresa. Readers can consult studies by Orazio Attanasio, Costas Meghir, and Ana Santiago, by Petra Todd, and by Rodrigo Garcia Verdu. The evidence is rather clear that Progresa has reduced child labor and raised schooling levels of children in the program, especially among girls, compared to a more or less random sample of families who were used as controls. Progresa is pretty expensive and a full benefit-cost evaluation requires more years of data. Still, the program appears to have been a success, although it could be designed to be more effective per peso spent. By that I mean changing the format to give parents the greatest benefits if they keep their children in school at those ages where children are most likely to drop out of school.
The situation of French children of African descent is not the same as poor rural Mexican children. For one thing, children of African immigrants who skip school usually either are not working, or are engaged in the drug trade and other illegal activities. Yet the principle is the same, that parents should be held accountable for school attendance and other behavior of their children. They can be held accountable either by being financially punished when their children misbehave, the French proposal, or by receiving extra payments when their children do better, as in Progresa. I would improve on the French approach by following the philosophy behind the Mexican program, and give financial bonuses to families whose children attend school and do reasonably well there. I would add to the proposal that benefits be increased when children do not get into trouble with the law for committing crimes or for engaging in other anti-social behavior.
Of course, giving a financial supplement for good behavior rather than docking families for bad behavior puts greater strain on the government's budget. I suspect this is the reason why the French chose financial punishments since they have been running a sizable budget deficit. However, by reducing a little the typical welfare and other benefits paid to families, the unused tax revenue would be available to reward poor families whose children do particularly well.
There is no reason why programs like Progresa should be restricted to developing nations or to immigrant families. The US could usefully adapt such a program to the needs of poor children from ghettos and elsewhere. For example, poor families could receive benefits when their children attend high school regularly or until graduation, and if the children do well in their classes and on tests. This should improve the attendance of these children and reduce dropout rates. It would also encourage parents to be active in forcing improvements in the schools their children attend so that they can do better on state-wide and other tests.