Can cash transfers improve mental health? Ohrnberger et al present experimental evidence from the Malawi Incentive Programme (MIP), a CCT offering cash transfers conditional on maintaining HIV-free status for at least a year. The MIP improved mental health significantly, or by 1.1 units along the SF12 mental health measure (which is about 2% of the sample mean, or 0.1 of a standard deviation). Impacts are progressive: mental health gains equal to 4.6 units for the lowest quantile of the mental health distribution – i.e., over four times the average effect (see figure above). These benefits are associated with increases in consumption expenditures, although post-MIP effects remain to be explored (“… the experience of windfall income may harm mental health postintervention due to the sudden and discontinuous income gain”) (h/t Amber Peterman).

… and then some less positive news: in the US, Bitler et al show that despite safety nets higher spending and earlier injection than in 2010 Great Recession, food insecurity rates tripled and the use of food pantries rose by 70%. Why? By examining programs like unemployment insurance ($600/week), the one-time payment of $1,200/adult and $500/child, an increase in SNAP payments, and the launch of the Pandemic EBT program to replace lost school meals, three bottlenecks stand out: (i) poor timing and delays (due to overwhelmed systems); (ii) modest amounts paid outside UI ($30-40/week); and (iii) persistent coverage gaps (e.g., “application-based” approaches for new programs were a key source of low take up relative to automatic payments… as well as tying SNAP receipt to work for some groups and making it more difficult for immigrants to participate). Bonus: Fu and Brown have some sobering news on the timing of the US Food Box program.

But it’s not just the US: a review of estimates of food subsidy (PDS) coverage in India by Reetika Khera and Somanchi find that over 400 million individuals are excluded from the scheme (h/t Saksham Khosla).

Since I previously mentioned the great recession, a new report by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter, discusses the “… rediscovery of social protection in a global pandemic”. He argues that in 2008-09, just like in today, countries initially ramped up social protection spending, but such investments were downsized in 2010 and 2016. With exports and tax revenue now quickly declining, countries “…are facing an impossible choice: increasing their external debt or reducing social protection levels”. It is in this context that the SR plans to “… support discussions on the establishment of a Global Fund for Social Protection”.

Any news on particular population groups? A new report by Save the Children portrays a bleak picture for children: more than 80% of 13,500 surveyed children in 46 countries felt that they were learning little; 2/3 of parents and caregivers reported their child had received no contact from teachers since their schools closed; 3/4 of households lost income as a result of COVID-19, 96% have trouble paying for an essential items, and 4/5 struggled to pay for food. What about people with disabilities? Banks et al explores how social protection should consider disability-inclusive tweaks in the design and implementation of eligibility criteria and application procedures, as well as benefit delivery.

I started this edition with mental health because an increasing body of research establishes a line of causality with lockdowns. Bangladesh, for instance, is no exception: Hamadani et al show that in the rural Rupganj upazila, over half of women experiencing emotional or moderate physical violence reported their increase since the lockdown. Also, median monthly family income fell from US$212 at baseline to $59 during lockdown, while food insecurity soared by 51.7% (h/t Alejandro Grinspun for this and next paper).

Lockdown trade-offs, however, are highly nuanced. Let’s look at what three new studies tell us. A first paper by Ceballos et al show that in India, effects vary by state-level market structures and household-level production/consumption functions. In Odisha, where mechanization is limited, farmers spent more on labor to harvest their crops, and distress selling was more prevalent due to the absence of a well-functioning procurement system for their crops. Yet as consumers, those farmers benefited from diverse and available local food supply following transport restrictions. In Haryana, preexisting market infrastructure allowed the state to sustain procurement at stable prices, limiting impacts on smallholder production. But as consumers, farmers faced disruptions due to reduced availability of foods in the markets.

A second paper by Kao et al shows that in Malawi, compliance with Covid-19 measures depended on who issued directives. Respondents viewed both traditional authorities and hospital heads as legitimately issuing guidance and sanctioning non-compliance, but people appear to comply more with hospital heads due to respect for their expertise. In a third and final paper, Carlitz and Makhura document that South Africa’s lockdown, one of the strictest in the continent, reduced the pandemic’s spread, but its reduced mobility hit hardest those with more precarious livelihoods and may have increased preexisting inequality.

Another study tells the story from a different perspective, i.e., the relationship between disease and freedom of movement. Using malaria as a case study and 15 billion mobile phone records across 9 million SIM cards, Milusheva estimates that an infected traveler contributes to 1.66 additional cases reported in the health facility at the traveler’s destination.

What’s in the pipeline for evidence-generation activities during the pandemic? Glynn-Broderick lays out some of the intriguing, ongoing IPA research on cash transfer within Covid responses, such as monitoring G2P payments in Bangladesh and the Philippines, the targeting of emergency cash transfers in Peru and Togo, the effects of transfers on physical and mental health in Colombia, and their effects on market traders in Liberia, Malawi, and Rwanda. Bonus: the INCLUDE platform has a handy two-page brief on cash transfers with a range of links to Covid country cases and thematic issues.

Looking beyond impacts… can research connect with global movements? Roelen and Shephard discuss key points emerging from a virtual event on the matter by the Global Coalition Against Child Poverty and the Impact Initiative.

From movements to revolutions: almost half a century after the Communist and Cultural revolutions, the late Alberto Alesina and colleagues show that Chinese individuals whose grandparents belonged to the pre-revolution elite earn 16% more and have completed 11% additional years of schooling than those from non-elite households (h/t Jim Cust).

Taxation is not a movement yet, but it’s becoming a key development issue. For instance, can taxes stimulate political participation in fragile states? Facing revenue shortfalls, the DRC city of Kananga sought to extend the tax net by turning to property taxes collected door-to-door. An RCT helped evaluate the effects: the collection increased property tax compliance from 0.1% in non-treated areas to 11.6% in treated neighborhoods. Did those first-time taxpayers demand, in turn, more voice in politics? Citizens in treated neighborhoods were about 5 percentage points more likely to turn up at townhall meetings hosted by the provincial government or to submit anonymous evaluations of the government to a locked drop box downtown. And check this out: citizens spent the equivalent of their household’s daily income to participate in political initiative… even 6-8 months after the tax campaign, with treatment effects showing no sign of decreasing over time (see also full QJE article here).

Bonus on fiscal issues: how to manage exhaustible resource revenues for growth? A new working paper by Chang and Lebdioui argues that economic diversification, not fiscal stabilization, paves the way to macroeconomic stability.

If too much to take in and would rather sit back and listen… some great podcast options here, with Banik speaking with Kunal Sen on India’s economic growth since 1991 and WIEGO’s series featuring Isobel Frye on universal basic income in South Africa (h/t Cyrus Afshar).

Final line: scary, fascinating, or both? A robot named GPT-3 (an open AI language generator) wrote this entire article from scratch (h/t Anush Bezhanyan).


Ugo Gentilini is from the World Bank’s Social Protection & Jobs global practice. The Social Protection Links newsletter, issued every Friday, distills and discusses a selection of curated resources on the topic, from academic articles to podcasts. The blog is republished on each week, offering knowledge on social protection to helps you stay on top of it — succinctly, regularly and frequently. Previous editions can be found here.

To sign up to the newsletter or share materials, you can contact Ugo by email ([email protected]), Twitter (@ugentilini) or LinkedIn.

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
      • Cash transfers
        • Conditional cash transfers
    • Subsidies
      • Price subsidies
        • Food subsidies
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Policy
    • Expenditure and financing
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Disaster risk management / reduction
  • Health
    • HIV/AIDS
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Liberia
  • Malawi
  • Rwanda
  • South Africa
  • Togo
  • Colombia
  • Peru
  • United States
  • Bangladesh
  • China
  • India
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not's