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New Research Dispels Common Myths About Unconditional Cash Transfers

Credit Picture to: The Open University

A new paper, “Myth-Busting? Confronting Six Common Perceptions about Unconditional Cash Transfers as a Poverty Reduction Strategy in Africa”, based upon evidence collected in eight Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) over a decade, presents evidence in favor of Unconditional Cash Transfers (UTCs) in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs).

Using experimental and quasi-experimental evaluations of large scale UTCs in SSA, conducted in collaboration with the Transfer Project, which sees the participation of UNICEF, FAO, The University of North Carolina, national governments and local research partners, the paper collects evidence regarding six common misconceptions about UTCs and refutes them: 1) UTCs induce higher spending on alcohol or tobacco; 2) UTCs are fully consumed (rather than invested); 3) UTCs create dependency (reduce participation in productive work); 4) UTCs  targeted to households with young children increase fertility; 5) UTCs lead to negative community-level economic impacts (including price distortion and inflation); 6) UTCs are fiscally unsustainable.

1) UTCs induce higher spending on alcohol or tobacco

A common argument against UTCs is that they would lead to spending on superfluous goods, as alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, which are sometimes called “compensatory bads”.

The argument is largely based upon anecdotal evidence, spurring from the fear that cash would be administered improperly and wasted, and would lead to the prioritization of in-kind transfers. The paper found that as the household expenditure allocated on food and other items increased, spending on alcohol and tobacco didn’t.

2) UTCs are fully consumed (rather than invested)

Being transfers unconditional, the fear may arise that they are immediately consumed, and that they do not stimulate longer term planning and investment in productive activities and human capital.

Noticing that the cash transfers were administered in locations where the populations is well below the poverty line, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that much of the transfer is used to cover basic needs, which in turns ensures the maintenance and a form of stimulus to human capital development.

Even as the role of direct expenditure is substantial, the paper finds that UTCs have positive effects on the productivity indicators chosen as representative of investments, stimulating crop and livestock activities.


3) UTCs create dependency (reduce participation in productive work)

A common perception that is based upon the longstanding discourse on welfare dependency, fears that gave birth to the concept of workfare in the sixties and that grew under Reaganism and Thatcherism.

The idea is that poor families receiving cash transfers would become lazy and lose the incentive to work, when it isn’t laziness in the first place to create poverty. The allegations of welfare dependency thus stem from a sort of moral high ground, the implication being that poverty is somehow “deserved” and that the poor are not willing to work in order to better their condition once they receive the transfer.

We have seen formerly that UTCs influence investments, it is thus certain that they do affect household decision making in labor allocation, i.e. how receivers participate to the labor market; but labor force participation rate as exemplified by the chosen indicators showed no significant impact of transfers on labor supply.


4) UTCs targeted to households with young children increase fertility

 Policymakers often sustain that Cash Transfers conditional to motherhood and having young children will have the unintended effect of increasing fertility rates.

The concern is even more severe for SSA, the last region to start experiencing the demographic transition.

Given that Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT) are the instrument of choice to foster higher fertility rates in OECD countries, the implications for their application look unavoidable; nonetheless the study found no instance in which a government UCTs increased fertility in SSA. Rather, the evidence suggests that UTCs have in some instances increased birth spacing and delayed pregnancies among young women.

5) UTCs lead to negative community-level economic impacts (including price distortion and inflation)

This fear stems from the idea that isolated cash injections would have a one-sided effect and only stimulate the demand side, whilst having no impact on the supply side. This would lead to detrimental effects, namely price distortion and inflation, devaluating the transfer and affecting also non-beneficiaries, which would find themselves facing higher prices.

The study found no evidence of inflationary effects, which can be explained by three factors: the relatively small share of UTCs beneficiaries (20% of the households); the sum of the transfer, which while substantial for the poor recipient it’s just a tiny proportion of the total cash flow of the community; the supply side is elastic, and there is enough market inter-connectivity for production to match increases in demand.

Theory suggests that UTC could be used to overcome market failures, functioning as a stimulus to pro-poor productivity and having net positive impact on local economies. Positive spillovers should manifest and affect non-beneficiaries, as a result of the stimulus to aggregate demand.

Local economy simulations indicate that UTCs generates positive effects on the local economy, with every dollar injected in the economy via the transfer causing nominal multiplier effects ranging from 1.27 in Malawi to 2.52 in Ethiopia.

6) UTCs are fiscally unsustainable

Once UTCs end their experimentation phase and are institutionalized, there is diffused concern that the administrative costs are too high. The fear is that the medium or long-term maintenance of the programs is fiscally unsustainable, and supposedly high administrative costs have been cited as one of the main reasons for not adopting UTCs.

The cost-transfer ratio (CTR) is the indicator generally used to measure the cost-efficiency of the programs. The CTR depends largely on the time at which it is measured; at the beginning of the programs there are large, fixed, start-up costs which weigh heavily on the ratio, representing a large part of the total costs in the first period. The start-up costs combine with the lack of economies of scale, which require times to be attained.

Using estimates of the CTRs for the programs of the Transfer Project, accounting for the scale-up effects and correcting for the start-up, lump sum costs, the study found that cash transfers at scale as a percentage of current spending and GDP are feasible and fully within the cost considerations of any national government. The expenditure for UTCs as a percentage of general government expenditures would have an average of 4.4 percent across countries, but could decrease of the 37% if the program was limited to the rural areas.

“…we have drawn on cross-country evaluation data to summarize evidence on six common perceptions that we believe hold back political acceptance of such programs. While the political context is such that these perceptions will need to be tested in each specific program in order to be fully internalized, we hope that the growing body of evidence, including that presented inthis paper, will permit more evidence-based rather than ideologically-based debates around cash transfers in LMICs”

More information at:

Sudhanshu Handa, Silvio Daidone, Amber Peterman, Benjamin Davis, Audrey Pereira, Tia Palermo, Jennifer Yablonski, “Myth-Busting? Confronting Six Common Perceptions about Unconditional Cash Transfers as a Poverty Reduction Strategy in Africa“, The World Bank Research Observer, Volume 33, Issue 2, 1 August 2018, Pages 259–298

About Daniele Fabbri

Daniele Fabbri has written 13 articles.

The views expressed in this Op-Ed piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Basic Income News or BIEN. BIEN and Basic Income News do not endorse any particular policy, but Basic Income News welcomes discussion from all points of view in its Op-Ed section.

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