If I had a Billion Dollars: Other Social Interventions

by Site Author

In past posts, I’ve described under-funded charitable causes in the United States. What other causes ought philanthropists to target?

It turns out that many social interventions have a lousy record. For instance, very few job-training programs have proven cost effective. But occasionally, one finds an intervention that works. That’s the case with BAM, the “Becoming a Man” intervention, piloted on the south side of Chicago. The BAM program trains at-risk teenagers in anger management, conflict resolution, and self-discipline. The program is based on the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, and encourages participants to “think about thinking.”

One of the first exercises in BAM is called the “fist exercise.” The teenage boys are divided into pairs, and one participant in each pair is instructed to clench their first. The other teenager is told that he has 30 seconds to get his partner to open his fist.

The teenagers spend those 30 seconds wrestling, with one boy struggling to open the other boy’s fist. After 30 seconds, the instructors bring everyone together and ask what happened.

“How did you try to get your partner’s fist open?”

“I beat the crap out of him.”

“And how did that work?”

“It didn’t.”

“Why didn’t you just ask him to open his fist?”

The teenagers don’t know how to respond to that one. They all asumed that they had to use force to open their partner’s fist. As economists who evaluated BAM put it:

When youth are asked why, they usually provide responses such as: ‘he wouldn’t have done it,’ or ‘he would have thought I was a punk.’ The group leader will then follow-up by asking: ‘How do you know?’

Well-executed evaluations of BAM have so far found a huge positive effect: fewer arrests, more high school graduates, and so on. The figure below plots grade-point average for teenagers randomly assigned to BAM versus teenagers randomly assigned to a control intervention. It’s rare for an intervention like this to have such a large effect.

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In a perfect world, we would be rolling out this intervention in disadvantaged neighborhoods across the country. Unfortunately, even if an intervention like this pays for itself on net, the people who initially pay for the program wont themselves enjoy the rewards. And so you wont see this kind of intervention everywhere anytime soon.