We can do better than just giving cash to poor people. Here’s why that matters.

Cash transfers are an enormously valuable, and increasingly widespread, development intervention. Their value and popularity has driven a vast literature studying how various kinds of cash transfers (conditional, unconditional, cash-for-work, remittances) affect all sorts of outcomes (finances, health, education, job choice). I work in one small corner of this literature myself: Lasse Brune and I just finished a revision of our paper on how the frequency of cash payouts affects savings behavior, and we are currently studying (along with Eric Chyn) how to use that approach as an actual savings product.

After all the excitement over their potential benefits, a couple of recent results have taken a bit of the luster off of cash transfers. First, the three-year followup of the GiveDirectly evaluation in Kenya showed evidence that many effects had faded out, although asset ownership was still higher. Then came a nine-year (!!) followup of a cash grant program in Uganda, where initial gains in earnings had disappeared (but again, asset ownership remained higher).

One question raised by these results is whether we can do any better than just giving people cash. A new paper by McIntosh and Zeitlin tackles this question head-on, with careful comparisons between a sanitation-focused intervention and a cost-equivalent cash transfer. They actually tried a bunch of cash transfers in a range so that they could get the exact cost-equivalency through regression adjustment. In their study, there’s no clear rank ordering between cost-equivalent cash and the actual program; neither have big impacts, and they change different things (though providing a larger cash transfer does appear to dominate the program across all outcomes).

This is just one program, though – can any program beat cash? It turns out that the answer is yes! At MIEDC this spring, I saw Dean Karlan present results from a “Graduation” program that provided a package of interventions (training, mentoring, cash, and a savings group) in several different countries. The Uganda results, available here, show that the program significantly improved a wide range of poverty metrics, while a cost-equivalent cash transfer “did not appear to have meaningful impacts on poverty outcomes”.

This is a huge deal. The basic neoclassical model predicts that, at best, a program can never beat giving people cash, the best you can do is tie.* People know what they need and can use money to buy it. If you spend the same amount of money, you could achieve the same benefits for them if you happen to hit on exactly what they want, but if you pick anything else you would have done better to just hand them money. (This is the logic behind the annual Christmas tradition of journalists trotting out some economist to explain to the world why giving gifts is inefficient. And economists wonder why no one likes us!)

The fact that we can do better than just handing out cash to people is a rejection of that model in favor of models with multiple interlocking market failures – some of which may be psychological or “behavioral” in nature. That’s a validation of our basic understanding of why poor places stay poor. In a standard model, a simple lack of funds, or even the failure of one market, is not enough to drive a permanent poverty trap. You need multiple markets failing at once to keep people from escaping from poverty. For example, a lack of access to credit is bad, and will hurt entrepreneurs’ ability to make investments. But even without credit, they could instead save money to eventually make the same investments. A behavioral or social constraint that keeps them from saving, in contrast, can keep them from making those investments at all.

McIntosh and Zeitlin refer to Das, Do, and Ozler, who point out that “in the absence of external market imperfections, intra-household bargaining concerns, or behavioral inconsistencies, the outcomes moved by cash transfers are by definition those that maximize welfare impacts.” While their study finds that neither cash nor the program was a clear winner, the Graduation intervention package, in contrast, clearly beats an equivalent amount of cash on a whole host of metrics. We can account for this in two ways. One view is that the cash group actually was better off – people would really prefer to spend a windfall quickly than make a set of investments that pay off with longer-term gains. The other, which I ascribe to, is that there are other constraints at work here. Under this model, the cash group just couldn’t make those investments – they didn’t have the access to savings markets, or there is a missing market in training/skill development, etc.

There is an important practical implication as well. The notion of “benchmarking” development interventions by comparing them to handing out cash is growing in popularity, and it’s an important movement. Indeed, the McIntosh and Zeitlin study makes major contributions by figuring out how to do this benchmarking correctly, and by pushing the envelope on getting development agencies to think about cash as a benchmark.** But what do we do when there is no obvious way to benchmark via cash? In particular, when we are studying education interventions, who should we be thinking about making the cash transfers to? McIntosh and Zeitlin talk about a default of targeting the cash to the people targeted by the in-kind program. In many education programs, the teachers are the people targeted directly. In others, it is the school boards that are the direct recipients of an intervention. Neither group of people is really the aim of an education program: we want students to learn. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, direct cash transfers to teachers and school boards don’t do much to improve learning. You could change the targeting in this case, and give the cash to the students, or to their parents, or maybe just to their mothers – there turn out to be many possible ways of doing this.

So it’s really important that we now have an example of a program that clearly did better than a direct cash transfer. From a theoretical perspective, this is akin to Jensen and Miller’s discovery of Giffen goods in their 2008 paper about rice and wheat in China: it validates the way we have been trying to model persistent poverty. From the practical side, it raises our confidence that the other interventions we are doing are worthwhile, in contexts where benchmarking to cash is impractical, overly complicated, or simply hasn’t been tried. Perhaps we haven’t proven that teacher training is better than a cash transfer, but we do at least know that high-quality programs can be more valuable than simply handing out money.

EDIT: Ben Meiselman pointed out a typo in the original version of this post (I was missing “best” in “the best you can do is tie”), which I have corrected.

*I am ignoring spillovers onto people who don’t get the cash here, which, as Berk Ozler has pointed out, can be a big deal – and are often negative.

**Doing this remains controversial in the development sector – so much so that many of the other projects that are trying cash benchmarking are doing it in “stealth mode”.

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