The promise of universal child benefits: The foundational policy for economic and social development

Extensive evidence shows that social protection reduces poverty and increases income security in households, with positive repercussions for child health, nutrition, education, and food security and protection (ILO and UNICEF, 2019, 2023). Social protection also provides households with the economic security to boost their productivity and earning potential, while lowering the risk of the persistence of poverty across generations, and helping to prevent child labour (ILO and UNICEF, 2022). Nonetheless, across countries there are gaps and inequalities in social protection coverage that often result in children being excluded for reasons of age, gender, disability status, geography and more. Universal child benefits (UCBs) can also act as the foundation for a comprehensive and adequate system of child social protection. Paid as regular cash or tax transfers to families for their dependent children (see below for full definition), they constitute a core type of social protection policy that can effectively reduce disparities in child social protection coverage, reduce child poverty and generate positive returns on public investment, both within and across countries. Approximately 50 countries currently operate some form of UCB policy, but there exists wide variation in benefit amounts, delivery, coverage and other aspects. Policy design has a decisive effect on results. This brief explains what UCBs are, catalogues where and on what terms they currently exist around the world, reviews the existing evidence on how UCBs contribute to child poverty reduction and other goals, identifies specific design considerations to create an optimally designed UCB policy and outlines the goals that UCBs can help to meet when designed well. Taken all together, the brief provides a resource for countries intending to enhance their existing child benefit policy or establish a UCB scheme.