With Strings Attached

Latin America’s conditional cash transfer programs don’t offer a real answer to poverty and inequity.

Art by Erin Schell for Jacobin.

Conditional cash transfers (CCTs) have been heralded across the political spectrum as a fast, affordable way to improve the global poor’s access to basic services and bring about important social gains. The International Monetary Fund claims that CCTs are “smart economics” that “empower women,” while Argentine President Cristina Kirchner praises the programs for contributing to development and promoting the inclusion of “the most vulnerable sectors” of society.

CCT mechanisms are quite simple. The recipient meets certain conditions — such as going for a check-up while pregnant, bringing their newborn for follow-up visits, or sending their child to school — and in return receives a cash transfer from the state.

The payments are small. In Bolivia, for example, the program for pregnant women, named after the revolutionary indigenous leader Juana Azurduy, pays around $20 USD a visit during gestation and the first two years of the child’s life. It, like most CCTs, focuses on social reproduction, targeting women, specifically poor mothers.

While today much of the liberal-left embraces CCTs, they were actually first pioneered in the 1970s by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and were later incorporated into 1990s neoliberal policy agendas in Brazil, Mexico, and Honduras. But it’s only been in the past two decades that they have proliferated, particularly in the “emerging economies” of Latin America, including “pink tide” countries like Bolivia, Argentina, and most famously, Brazil under Lula, who piloted the Bolsa Família (Family Allowance) program shortly after his 2002 election.

Bolsa Família provides small cash transfers to families with children, who in return must ensure that the children attend school and are vaccinated. With approximately 12 million families participating, it’s one of the largest and most prominent CCT programs in the world.

CCTs are without a doubt more progressive than the work-for-welfare policies that became popular during the 1980s and 1990s, famously through the reforms of US presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who portrayed vulnerable welfare recipients as economic menaces.

Similar policies were also implemented in the Global South throughout years of neoliberal structural adjustment. Facing pressure from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the Bolivian government slashed subsidies for food, transportation, and housing in exchange for loans needed to stabilize the country’s economy. To mitigate the impact of these policies, the banks gave Bolivia “emergency social funds” — cash to give to the poor in exchange for physical labor, such as digging trenches for urban water systems. Since these policies were means-tested, and women tend to be the poorest of the poor, the programs had very high rates of female participation.

Things have changed a bit since then. With the turn to “neoliberalism with a human face” in the wake of the late 1990s East Asian financial crisis, it has now been accepted in international policy networks that the state can just give money to the poor without making them “work.” But should left-wing governments support CCTs as a policy instrument to tackle poverty and gender inequality?

One of the reasons why CCTs are so popular is that they deliver results at a relatively low cost. Compared to the expenses involved in establishing universal, quality healthcare and education systems — which in most of the Global South would entail massive public investment — CCTs are almost free. According to economist Enrique Valencia Lomelí, by the mid 2000s there were twenty different CCT programs in sixteen different countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, with costs ranging from only 0.04 to 0.80 percent of GDP — small change considering that total health spending in the OECD countries as a share of GDP was 8.9 percent in 2013.

While CCTs have a mixed record, studies show that overall they’ve had a positive impact on maternal and child health, and have helped improve school retention rates. According to the IMF, the direct impact of CCTs in Brazil and Mexico accounts for one-fifth of the decrease in the Gini coefficient between 1995 and 2004 in those two countries, with some of this closing income inequality gap credited to improved school retention rates.

CCTs are also popular — especially given the mainstreaming of feminist discourses over the last decade — because they are said to empower women and undermine patriarchy by transferring cash straight to the female head of the qualifying household, short-circuiting oppressive household relations.

But we shouldn’t assume that the move to CCTs is a step away the marketization of basic needs, and indeed the question of whether cash transfers actually liberate women has been largely unexplored. Most academic studies in English on CCTs have been conducted by sociologists and economists, and have been primarily concerned with measuring their impact in the health and education outcomes of children. To date there has been little ethnographic research — the best way to explore subjective questions about the “empowerment” effects of the policies — though feminist researchers like Maxime Molyneux have raised several objections, focusing on their paternalistic nature, effects on citizenship, and tendency to entrench unequal gender relations.

The framing of the program lends itself to these critiques. The conditionalities (or “co-responsibilities”) imposed by cash transfer programs imply a kind of state paternalism which aims to discipline the behavior of the poor in order to teach them how to invest in the well-being and “human capital” of their children.

Conditional cash transfers programs begin with the presupposition that the poor will obey the conditionalities in order to overcome poverty. The flip-side of this is that CCTs therefore serve as a mechanism for disciplining poor people — when a household fails to comply with its “responsibilities,” it is promptly removed from the program.

This axiom is quite different from the notion that providing public goods such as health and education is “socially efficient,” and therefore, categorically desirable from a development standpoint. As the UN Economic Commission for Latin America’s (CEPAL) 2012 report noted, CCTs violate the human rights principles of universality and non-discrimination, the right to social security, and the right to an adequate standard of living. Only certain poor people — the “deserving poor” who fail the income test — are granted state assistance and allowed to participate in the programs.

The punitive character of the conditionalities is based on the liberal belief that the poor are poor because they don’t “invest” in their children. It assumes that if a poor family complies with the assigned responsibilities — “correcting” their behavior accordingly — they will manage to escape poverty. Neither of these ideas could be further from the truth.

CCT promoters portray these policies as reciprocal agreements — contracts — between poor families and the state: poor families meet the conditions and the state pays the cash. The contractual characterization of these programs becomes evident in the use of the term “co-responsibilities” (instead of conditions) in most of the Latin American programs, a term which aims to frame recipients as adults capable of agency. As one World Bank report puts it, “The state is seen as a partner in the process, not a nanny.”

Despite the contractualist language, in reality the obligation only goes one way — recipients are obliged to comply with the program terms if they want to remain beneficiaries, but the programs do not require the state to actually provide the necessary conditions for the poor to fulfill their end of the bargain.

For example, one of the major problems in rural areas of Latin America is that there are simply no services to buy — even if there is a hospital in the nearby city, the recipient of the CCT may not be able to get there due to the non-existent public transportation system. To make matters worse, medical clinic staff are often poorly trained and thus unqualified to attend to the needs of women, especially those who are indigenous or differently abled.

In Bolivia and Mexico, researchers have documented harsh racism among doctors and nurses — a significant barrier to women’s access to health. CCTs do nothing to address these persistent forms of oppression and inequality.

But the most important problem with conditional cash transfers in Latin America is that they frame poverty as a female concern. A number of caveats are in order: Women of childbearing age do tend to be the most vulnerable and poor members of society; women do have fewer economic resources than men; and in most jurisdictions in the world today, women are the primary members of the household responsible for social reproduction. Any successful policy that aims to transform society must recognize these facts.

CCTs, however, follow them to the wrong conclusions. In all Latin American CCT programs funds are only provided to women; the exception to this model was Argentina’s short-lived Universal Child Allowance, in which both women and men were eligible to become recipients provided that they were primary caregivers. But in July 2013 the policy was changed and now cash is exclusively transferred to the mother of the household, similar to the rest of the region.

This exclusive focus on women is problematic, yet surprisingly uncontested in the broader development community. By targeting only women, conditional cash transfers build on and promote conservative ideas of womanhood and the expected maternal role of poor women within their families. The policy appeals to cultural norms that portray women as inherently “mothers,” suggesting that only mothers matter, while simultaneously framing poverty as a female issue.

Women appear as maternal figures that are instrumental to combat poverty (and thus generate economic growth) — people to be recruited, micro-policed, and trained to ensure the development of the next generation of workers.

But why do only mothers matter? In contrast to the sanguine emphasis on the importance of motherhood, in these policies fathers appear to play no role in helping poor families escape poverty. Instead of creating and promoting mechanisms to incentivize fathers to participate in care practices and responsibilities, images of fatherhood are removed from the sphere of the household.

As a stark contrast, the parental leave policies in Norway, Sweden, and Iceland — some of the most advanced countries in the world with respect to gender equality — force male partners in opposite-sex couples to take part of their leave or lose it, and leaves may not be transferred to the female spouse.

Conditional cash transfers thus present a paradox from the perspective of gender equality. On the one hand, women have finally been recognized by the state as legitimate economic actors and rights-bearers, which represents, as the CEPAL report puts it, a “true milestone in the history of social policy in the region.” Yet, on the other hand, there is a fundamental disconnect between the so-called sharp gender focus of the cash transfer programs and poor women’s real empowerment.

Though framed as legal beneficiaries of the programs, they do not receive the financial benefit by their own right, but based on their relationship with the real intended beneficiaries of the stipends: their children. Poor women are seen as means to an end rather than an end in and of themselves. Molyneux astutely observes that women are instrumentalized by CCTs as mere “conduits of policy.”

As Molyneux argues, in the most practical sense, this adds greatly to women’s time burdens — the time spent collecting the transfers and fulfilling program demands, such as travelling and queuing to receive the stipend, obtaining certificates from schoolteachers, attending workshops on healthcare, and volunteering activities related to the program. The poorer a household’s living conditions are at the beginning of the program, the more duties women will need to perform in order to accomplish expected objectives.

The CCTs also deepen gender divides through their symbolic implications. Brazil’s Bolsa Família, for example, tries to train women to perform “feminine” functions such as helping children with their homework or bringing children to professionalized medical services, suggesting that a family’s poverty may be explained by the lack of maternal qualities on the part of poor women.

Apparently, women will not sufficiently care for their children unless they are incentivized to do so with cash.

From the perspective of social reproduction feminism, this discourse can be explained in the context of social policy that attempts to keep care work “out of sight and out of mind.” The intensifying exploitation of poor women’s labor and time is disguised as “gender empowerment.” It also ends up being a perverse mechanism, as the state makes women solely responsible for addressing the forms of oppression and exploitation to which they are already subjected — unequal gender relations and poverty.

To some degree, in a capitalist society, giving money directly to women does increase their power within the household and within society at large. But the evidence of how CCTs operate in Latin America to deepen gender divides and position women as functionaries rather than real citizens suggests that cash transfer should not be among the Left’s social policy proposals.

As Frederick Engels observed long ago, women will not be liberated until the tasks of social reproduction are socialized, that is, provided by the state and shared equally (to the extent possible) with men. As they are currently conceived, CCTs have the opposite effect: they entrench unequal gendered divisions of labor, use women as social policy instruments that build “human capital,” and fail to recognize women as rights-bearing citizens of their own merit, regardless of family status.

Without a doubt, CCTs are less cruel than the work-for-welfare programs that dominated the international policy agenda in the 1980s and 1990s, but there are much better policy alternatives available. The best on offer are ones that aim to socialize the tasks of social reproduction by taking vital services out of the market.

Here the state can play a positive role in promoting women’s equality by providing high-quality social services on a free and universal basis. We have seen these delivery models, and their beneficial effects, in countries like Cuba and Venezuela, where all citizens have access to health and education as a social right.

There is no “silver bullet” solution to the deep problems of inequality and poverty in Latin America and the world over, but progressive movements should set their sights far higher than conditional cash transfer programs.