Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

Justice’s $100 vaccine carrot needs fine tuning

As the pace of Covid-19 vaccinations has slowed across the country, states and communities are trying creative incentives to encourage individuals to get their shots.

New Jersey and Connecticut are buying beers for the newly vaccinated. “This is the place to be, and the drinks are on us. What more could you ask for?” Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said.

The Hill reports that Detroit is handing out $50 prepaid debit cards to individuals who bring in an unvaccinated person to get a shot. Maryland will pay $100 bonuses to state employees who get vaccinated.

And West Virginia Governor Jim Justice has floated a plan to offer $100 U.S. Savings Bonds to individuals 16 to 35 who get vaccinated. However, that idea has run into trouble. As it turns out, buying a couple hundred thousand savings bonds is a little complicated Justice has not given up on the idea, but he has now broadened it to possibly just giving $100 in cash to shot takers.

“We have our savings bond situation or a hundred dollars,” Justice said during his Wednesday briefing. “I don’t know that we’ve gotten through the details of how all that’s going out, but anybody who’s 16 to 35 that has gotten their shot will receive this.”

As is often the case, Justice’s heart is in the right place, but he is shaky on the details.

The problem with the savings bond idea, along with the logistics, is that the gratification is deferred. 

It takes 20 years for a savings bond to reach full maturity. The information age has shortened our attention span dramatically. A study by Microsoft Corporation last year found that people start to lose concentration after eight seconds.

Telling someone that their savings bond will be worth $100 in 20 years is like quoting the old Chinese proverb to them: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Why even bother?

However, if individuals know they are going to receive a specific and immediate benefit for a vaccination, they may be more likely to get in line.

A survey of unvaccinated Americans by the UCLA Covid-19 Health and Politics Project found that one-third of them were likely to get a shot if they got a cash payment of $50 or $100.

If a large percentage of the population does need to be bribed — er, incentivized — to get vaccinated, it would be more effective to reward them with immediate gratification. 

Hand them a reward in their right hand while they are getting a shot in their left arm.

As I have said before, it is unfortunate that West Virginia may have to pay people just to do the right thing for themselves and others. After all, virtue is its own reward.

However, if a bribe is what it takes to reach at least an 80 percent vaccination rate for West Virginia and put this pandemic behind us, then start handing out the cash.