Can cash transfers really be transformative? A literature review of the sustainability of their impacts

Only a few sources have conducted a literature review of the (relatively scarce) evidence around the sustainability (i.e., persistence after end of exposure) of the impacts of cash transfer (CT) programs. Such tasks prove to be fundamental, especially in light of recent debates on social assistance, which extend its role beyond monetary poverty alleviation, to more structural and ‘transformative’ improvements. However, the existing reviews all focus on specific outcome categories, or on a particular CT design, and do not adopt a stringent definition of sustainability, typically relating to ‘long-term’ repercussions, even before program closure. In this context, this paper gathered all the available proofs – regardless of the variable of interest – on the sustainability of the effects of CTs of any kind. Its findings are nevertheless disaggregated by outcome domain, by the length of the timeframe elapsed since receiving the last transfer, and by program features. Particular attention was given to ‘graduation’ projects, given the traditional assumption that CTs are inadequate at building sustainable and resilient livelihoods in the long run. Besides disproving this hypothesis, the study suggests that cash transfers tend to yield positive and sustained effects on schooling, incomes, food security, expenditures and savings. The evidence on child labour or early marriage is more mixed.