Column: Incentives a better way to deliver holiday cheer

This week’s column for The StarPhoenix

A long-standing Saskatchewan tradition is that Social Services Ministry cheques are sent out earlier in December so that recipients can partake in some holiday cheer.

It might provide some cheer, but what’s being spent is money for January. A combination of grocery money being spent early on the holidays, combined with a long wait until the February cheques arrive, means a tough start to a new year. It’s longer lines at food banks and soup kitchens, or simply going without essentials.

This year, Social Services Minister June Draude broke with tradition and delayed sending out the January cheques until after Christmas. Despite the frustration many felt, she was correct. While it made it hard to do any Christmas shopping, it puts assistance recipients in a better position for January.

The underlying problem is that social assistance payments barely cover rent and food. It’s a hard way to live any time of the year, but especially during the holidays. Draude was right when she said that many charities work hard at providing Christmas cheer, but there is another way to make the holidays happy.

Human beings respond to incentives. However, the social assistance program offers few incentives for taking steps to improve your lot in life. In fact, the system often punishes initiative and re-wards bad behaviour. Other jurisdictions are starting to get the universal principle that people respond well to incentives, especially cash.

New York City conducted a pilot project that rewarded parents for certain productive behaviours, such as inoculating their children, improving kids’ school attendance, having them get a library card, and for ensuring preventive health and dental care. These all are proactive measures that save taxpayers substantial money down the road.

Many were outraged that parents were paid for doing things that most of us do without payment, but the truth is that paying for good behaviour is a lot cheaper than paying dearly later for the consequences of failure.

By looking at an incentive model, Saskatchewan has a chance to encourage behaviours that we know will break the cycle of poverty, save the province long-term costs for health and other social programs, and encourage people to take steps that help them either re-enter the workforce or just do better while on assistance.

Incentives aren’t a cure-all, but they are part of a solution to helping people out of poverty.

Not everyone will respond to incentives. Among some people who receive benefits, the idea of working or improving their lot in life is a foreign concept, and their sense of entitlement overwhelms almost every other thought process. They will miss out on incentive benefits, but I’m sure not many of us will feel bad about that.

For those who do want to better themselves and their families, why not put more resources behind them and give them the steps needed to succeed in life? In places where incentives have been used, it’s hundreds of dollars that have been distributed per person, not thousands.

People are not being paid to be lifted out of poverty.

Instead, they are being encouraged to make good decisions and are then rewarded. Gordon Gekko was right: "Greed is good," and people respond.

The payoff isn’t just in better life choices. If it’s done right, this will provide a chance to enjoy more of what Saskatchewan has to offer. It means money at Christmastime for gifts or a simple festive dinner. It means an opportunity to take in events such as the Taste of Saskatchewan, or an afternoon at the midway at the Exhibition.

For those who have grown up in poverty and on the outside of much of what Saskatchewan has to offer, the opportunity to be part of things is an incentive by itself. As the province makes the transition from a tradition of scarcity to abundance, it’s a big step to finding new ways that allow the disadvantaged to share in the opportunity.

Draude was correct to stop sending out the January cheques early. Rather than rely on non-profits to make up the gap, the government has an opportunity to both reward good choices and restore some dignity to people.

The issue isn’t about money for Christmas, but an opportunity for the province to invest in those who want to do better and reward them for making decisions that serve everyone’s best interests. It’s too late for this holiday season, but there is a lot of time to get ready to try something different next year.

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