Family Rewards 2.0


Family Rewards was an innovative approach to poverty reduction in the United States that was modeled on the conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs common in lower- and middle-income countries. The program offered cash assistance to poor families, contingent on their meeting certain criteria related to family health care, children’s education, and parents’ work, in the hope of reducing long-term poverty. The first version of Family Rewards was evaluated in New York City starting in 2007 and had positive effects on some outcomes.

The early lessons learned from that study led to Family Rewards 2.0, the second iteration of the   model.  Like the first version of the model, Family Rewards 2.0 included rewards in each of the three domains of children’s education, family preventative health, and parents’ workforce efforts, but it was modified in several ways. 

The program and evaluation was funded by the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), an initiative enacted under the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, that targets millions of dollars in public-private funds to expand effective solutions across three issue areas: economic opportunity, healthy futures, and youth development and school support. This work seeks to create a catalog of proven approaches that can be replicated in communities across the country.

In 2010, the Corporation for National and Community Service made its first set of Social Innovation Fund (SIF) grants. Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity) and the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City received a grant to replicate and evaluate five of NYC Opportunity’s most promising antipoverty programs. Family Rewards was one of those programs.

The Family Rewards demonstration was overseen by a collaborative, which included staff members from The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, NYC Opportunity, and MDRC. The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City is a grant-making institution that facilitates public-private partnerships throughout New York City. NYC Opportunity, a unit in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Operations, sponsors and manages innovative antipoverty programs and evaluations. MDRC worked in close partnership with NYC Opportunity to design the Family Rewards program and led the evaluation.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Both versions of Family Rewards were inspired by the model of successful conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs in a number of developing countries, including Mexico’s Prospera program (formerly called Oportunidades and Progresa). The program was launched in July 2011 and operated in two American cities -- the Bronx, New York, and Memphis, Tennessee. Like the original program, Family Rewards 2.0 offered rewards in the domains of children’s education, family health, and parents’ work. 

Family Rewards used the offer of cash transfers to achieve three interrelated objectives: (1) to lessen immediate income-related hardships for poor families, (2) to help and encourage poor families to increase — or sustain — positive efforts to improve their own futures, and (3) to help poor families as they made investments in their children’s futures. Thus, the payments to families were to function as a short-term income supplement to reduce the immediate hardships of poverty, but one that built on the concept of mutual obligations embedded in the nation’s major income support programs for low-income families, by linking the payments to steps that can improve a family’s economic security and reduce intergenerational poverty. The monetary payments were awarded only when households met specific conditions in three key areas:

  • Education-based conditions: Students were rewarded for high attendance, good grades, satisfactory performance or better on state core exams, and taking of college entrance exams.

  • Health-based conditions:  Families received payments for obtaining medical and dental check-ups for each family member.

  • Workforce-related conditions: Parents received payments for full-time work and for earning General Educational Development (GED) certificates. 

Family Rewards 2.0 was modified in several ways from the original program. It offered fewer rewards in each of the three areas, in order to make the program easier to understand and to focus families’ attention on a limited number of outcomes; it offered the education rewards only to high school students, given the lack of effects found in the first program for younger students; it offered students rewards for grades earned; and it made the rewards more timely, and thus more salient to families, by paying them monthly for rewards earned, rather than every two months. Most notably, however, the new model offered guidance, in which staff members actively engaged families in conversations about strategies to earn rewards. The addition of guidance represented the biggest change to the original model.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

Family Rewards 2.0 was tested in the Bronx, New York, and Memphis, Tennessee. The idea behind including another city in the replication effort was to make the findings, across both cities together, more relevant to the broader national population. By running the program again in New York City, the program designers expected the evaluation could answer whether the changed model worked better in a similar context. By adding Memphis, the evaluation could also assess how the model worked outside of New York City, in a very different economic and social context.

The program was evaluated using a randomized controlled trial.  In each city, about 1,200 families were recruited for the study. Half were randomly assigned to a program group, offered Family Rewards, and half were assigned to a control group, not offered the program. The program targeted families with at least one child entering ninth grade or tenth grade. Once enrolled in Family Rewards 2.0, however, all of the family’s school-age children became eligible for the health-related rewards. The program also targeted recipients of benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamps”) in order to get resources to the neediest families and to explore how a CCT approach might interact with and complement these safety net programs.

Children’s Aid Society managed the operations of Family Rewards 2.0 and provided technical assistance and oversight to the four Neighborhood Partner Organizations (NPOs) selected to implement the program. The NPOs were charged with implementing core components of the program. They recruited and enrolled families into the research sample, oriented families to the program, and provided continuing guidance to help families earn rewards.

The evaluation of Family Rewards included two major components:

  1. Impact analysis. This analysis examined the program’s effects on a wide range of outcomes, including children’s school performance; family health care practices and health outcomes; parents’ employment and training outcomes; and family income, benefit receipt, poverty, material hardship, and quality of life. Data sources include administrative records on students’ school performance, parents’ employment and earnings, and families’ receipt of benefits. A survey was administered to families 24 months after study entry, capturing program experiences, income and material hardship, and other outcomes.
  2. Implementation and process analysis. This analysis explored the operations of Family Rewards, focusing particularly on the roles and experiences of the implementing institutions and on the perceptions and experiences of the participating families. Data for this analysis include observations of program activities (including family guidance sessions), interviews with advisors at the NPOs and Children’s Aid Society, focus groups with adult and high school student participants, a review of all program materials, a case-file review to analyze the implementation of the Family Earning Plans, and an analysis of the management information system and payment-processing data. 

The first report from the project assessed the implementation of Family Rewards 2.0 over the first two years, finding that it was operating generally as envisioned in both cities by the middle of Year 2, after a few recruitment and start-up challenges. The family guidance component evolved considerably over time, becoming much more intensive during Year 2. Families also seemed to have understood the program fairly well and earned on average more than $2,000 in rewards in Year 2.

The final report examined effects through Year 4. The findings showed that the new program achieved many of the same effects as the original model, but fell short in other, important ways. Family Rewards 2.0 met its short-term goals of increasing income and reducing poverty, although the effects were smaller, given that less money was transferred overall. The program also increased dental visits and adults’ self-reported health status. However, the new program did not affect students’ school progress through Year 4. Overall, the findings indicate that Family Rewards 2.0 did not lead to bigger or more widespread effects.