Pop quiz: Why do you really show up at work every day? 1) They couldn't do it without me; 2) I enjoy the abuse; 3) I need the money to support my addictions, like wearing clothes, keeping a roof over my head and eating once in a while.

If your answer included the word “money,” then you might appreciate New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to pay certain low- income students between $5 and $10 for taking a test and even more — $25 to $50 — for scoring top grades on them. Under the plan, which will begin this fall, older students can earn a maximum of $500 while participating schools receive $5,000.

Bloomberg, who sees the program as a way to motivate public schoolers, is no stranger to making money. Local government's only billionaire, Bloomberg is a businessman who is using his own money and donations from others in the private sector to pay the students. Why would businesses support paying people to excel? Maybe because that's what private enterprise already does. At least, the best companies reward employees for exceptional performance.

Paying students for good grades is only one in a series of programs to help reduce poverty. Opportunity NYC, for example, also gives cash to adults for such things as having a full-time job, buying health insurance and sending their children to school.

Parents and their children aren't the only residents the city is paying to get smart about life. A select group of New York's 19-to-24- year-old prisoners will have the option to change jobs, moving from pounding rocks to pounding the books. The pay for both types of work is 27 cents an hour, and successfully completing the courses will count toward earning a high school diploma.

Using money as an incentive in schools is rare, but not new. Chelsea, Mass., gives children $25 for perfect attendance and Dallas pays students $2 for every book they read. In a three-year-old program, Coshocton, Ohio, rewards eligible third to sixth graders who are selected through a lottery $100 for above-average scores on five state exams or as much as $75 for a proficiency ranking on the tests.

How has Coshocton's program performed? Test grades in math and science were higher for students who were paid compared to those who weren't, according to the early results, but the same cannot be said for reading scores.

While writing this story, an unusual similarity between unmotivated students, prisoners and even some of the people we work with emerged: They view their circumstances as confinement rather than a chance to grow personally and professionally. In some cases, their curiosity and optimism is trumped by fear of failure, deep-seated anger or good, old- fashioned laziness. The programs in New York and elsewhere will not cure the prisoner mentality, but knowing money is a motivator, it's time to give cash a chance to break down a few of those walls.
bill.wolpin@penton.com