The Price Is Right

An apple a day keeps the doctor away...and this nonprofit pays Boston parents for feeding them to their kids.

Read to your kids? Cash is on the way. Attend community meetings? Paid. Quit smoking? Money. The nonprofit group Family Independence Initiative (FII) is paying people to do the right thing. For every good deed, participating families receive a small stipend, earning up to $200 a month. To Markeisha Moore, a single mother of three girls who lives in Dorchester, it all sounded too good to be true. But now, for the first time in her life, she’s been able to save. “I get compensated for doctor visits, afterschool programs, losing weight, getting their grades up,” she says. “You’re going to reward me because I push my kids?”

That’s a question skeptics have been asking lately: People need to be paid to make sure their kids go to class? But since starting out 10 years ago in Oakland, FII has had success promoting healthful behavior. Last year the group, which is primarily funded through private donations and grants, set up shop in J.P. to see whether its little experiment could work on a wider scale.

So far, so good. In the first six months in Boston, the three dozen test families have averaged a 13 percent increase in their household income and a 22 percent increase in savings, and their children are doing significantly better in school.

As part of the project, families meet regularly to discuss goals like buying a home or opening a business. They also look for resources within their existing networks, like, for instance, the time they recruited one participant’s tech-savvy son to give them computer lessons. Meredith Rosenthal, a professor of health economics and policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, says these “microcommunities” provide positive reinforcement and a sense of accountability. “It’s a multidimensional approach,” she says. “I haven’t seen anything quite like it.”

For that matter, neither has FII’s founder, Maurice Lim Miller, who now serves on President Obama’s Council for Community Solutions. “We’ve never gotten that kind of change” so quickly, Miller says. He plans to expand the project to 250 Boston families next year, and to spread it to other cities, as well. As he says, “Boston is doing amazing things.”