In defense of the handout

Is simply giving money to the poor the best way to lift people out of poverty? asks development expert JOHN NORRIS

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The International Monetary Fund just issued a major report warning that rising levels of income inequality are threatening to undermine global economic growth. In places like the United States and South Africa, the top 1 percent of earners continue to disproportionately expand their wealth, as Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa remain the most unequal regions in the world. Prominent among the handful of steps advocated by the IMF to more efficiently redistribute income and wealth is a plan that is sure to raise some eyebrows: giving cash directly to the poor.

While using what economists and development experts call “conditional cash transfers” to combat poverty and reduce inequality has gained enormous momentum over the last decade, it still strikes many casual observers as profoundly counterintuitive — particularly coming from traditionalist institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. After all, doesn’t the idea of simply just giving money to the poor run directly in contrast with the old axiom about teaching a man to fish?

But there’s a good reason these institutions hold conditional cash transfers in high regard. For one, the lessons from the use of cash transfers over the last decade suggest how profound our own misconceptions about poverty, development and entitlements have been.

In discussions about poverty — whether concentrated in U.S. inner cities, small African villages or Brazil’s slums — there has always been a strain of thought, particularly among conservatives, that the poor somehow deserve to be poor because of bad work habits or a reluctance to pull themselves up to a better existence. Republican Congressman Paul Ryan landed in hot water recently after suggesting that urban poverty was driven by “generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”

The use of conditional cash transfers exploded into view a decade ago when Brazil established the Bolsa Familia or “family allowance” program, modeled on a much smaller pioneering Mexican program. Families below a set two-tier poverty threshold (with incomes, currently, of about $60 and $30 a month respectively) are given a yellow Bolsa Familia debit card, and the government credits this card with a set amount of money each month (roughly $13 to $127) depending on variables such as the number of children in the home. The program initially targeted 3.6 million families in 2003 and covers over 12 million families today.

Predictably, the program was met with a firestorm of criticism when it started in October 2003. Otaviano Ferreira Martins, a mayor from the Brazilian Social Democratic Party, complained, “The danger is that it will leave the people addicted to handouts.” Others, such as popular conservative blogger Reinaldo Avezedo, said that the plan would encourage poor women to have more children to receive greater monthly payments.

Bolsa Familia was designed by Brazilians who understood their own country: a geographically diverse nation with more ATMs (159,898 at last count) than any other country on Earth but a large number of people living in extreme poverty. The goal: to ensure that no Brazilian lives on less than $1.25 a day, the current international threshold for extreme poverty as defined by the World Bank.

Brazil ties very specific strings to the money, not as a punitive measure but to help make it an investment in the future. Wherever possible, in accordance with the cultural belief that women make better decisions about investing in the future of their children, family matriarchs are given control of the debit card. If families fail to have their children attend school on a regular basis, don’t get them vaccinated or miss medical checkups, payments are suspended. All beneficiaries are centrally registered and publicly listed on a government website.

The results have been dramatic. A 2013 study by The Institute of Applied Economic Research estimated that Brazil reduced extreme poverty by 89 percent over a decade, lifting 36 million families above the $1.25 threshold during that time. In just five years, the program helped reduce infant mortality rates by 20 percent. The high school completion rate for poor families that stay in the program is now actually higher than the national average, a stunning accomplishment. Brazil’s immunization rates are on par, and in some cases better than, those of the United States. All of Brazil’s major political parties now support the program.

With more resources, and more predictable resources, numerous evaluations have found that participants of Bolsa Familia appear to be making strategic decisions to invest in the future of their families. Mothers with a bit of extra money from the program are more likely to buy food, shoes and school supplies, rather than waste the money on things like alcohol or luxury items. And, contrary to the old conservative line about welfare mothers procreating to engender better benefits, the number of births per woman in the lowest income category dropped 30 percent, significantly faster than the national average. According to Brazil’s National Household Survey, the program has not discouraged work.

For all its success, however, Brazil’s program is not without its problems. Some left-wing critics fault the program for not doing enough to alter the fundamental dynamics that drive income inequality. Still, despite its detractors, conditional cash transfers quickly became the hot new approach in development.

One of its early champions was Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, who argued in 2004 that “these programs are as close as you can come to a magic bullet in development.” High praise indeed.

In 2012 alone, more than 120 different delegations from around the world visited Brazil to learn more about Bolsa Familia, and more than 30 countries now have some form of conditional cash transfers, reaching 750 million to 1 billion people around the globe.

But if conservatives were too skeptical of cash transfers, development experts and politicians run the risk of being too enthusiastic. With all things in development, the design of these programs is crucial. An effort by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to import the conditional cash transfer model into New York City fizzled after a three-year pilot, in part because the program was built to reward school attendance but school attendance was already high. The New York program also rewarded improved test scores but didn’t do much to help students achieve higher test scores. The program paid for performance rather than participation but raising overall achievement is complicated.

An excellent review of cash transfers by the British aid agency Department for International Development makes clear that cash transfers can be enormously powerful in driving up the numbers of people able to access key social services like schools and health systems, but gains are muted if a country isn’t able to simultaneously improve the quality of such systems. It doesn’t do a country much good if it gets everyone to go to school but the schools are lousy.

Along the same lines, the Overseas Development Institute found that cash transfers weren’t very successful in actually lifting families out of poverty in a lasting fashion unless they are coupled with other efforts, such as vocational training. The New York program probably would have worked better if it offered students mentoring and other help alongside cash payments.

The relative success of conditional cash transfers has encouraged policy makers and nongovernment organizations to experiment with an even bolder idea: unconditional cash transfers, i.e., giving money to the poor with no strings attached. The jury seems to be out on the long-term effectiveness of this approach.

Nevertheless, the idea of giving cash to the poor has changed the debate because such programs, when well-designed, can be cost effective, can help break inter-generational cycles of poverty and can promote greater economic equality.

With big money rushing into these programs and their backing by the IMF and the World Bank, though, it is helpful to paraphrase former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill and remind practitioners that, in the end, all development is local.

John Norris has held various positions with the U.S. government and international NGOs. He now works with the Center for American Progress and wrote this for Foreign Policy.

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