The Pandemic as a Stress Test: Reinventing Cash Transfer Programs in Brazil and Colombia

Luciana de Souza Leao, University of Michigan
Margarita Rodriguez, University of Michigan

The COVID-19 socioeconomic crisis forced societies to reconsider the role of cash transfer programs for the creation of inclusive social protection systems around the globe. As countries declared the health emergency and implemented lockdowns, cash transfers were created or expanded to compensate households for their lost income and enable citizens to adhere to stay-at-home orders. This paper examines how previous experiences with Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) determined how COVID-19 cash assistance were envisioned and operationalized in Brazil and Colombia, the countries with the largest CCTs in South America. Specifically, we investigate how the move from conditional cash transfers to unconditional emergency transfers has impacted policymakers’ understandings of the merits of behavioral conditionalities and policy targeting to alleviate poverty. What were the political and symbolic consequences of providing cash without conditionalities to poor individuals? How did it affect experts' notions of deservingness, as well as of the potential and pitfalls of state intervention in poverty dynamics? To answer these questions, the paper combines analysis of 50 in-depth interviews with key political and bureaucratic elites in Brazil and Colombia with content analysis of official documents produced about cash transfers during the first two years of the pandemic.

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 Presented in Session 25. Social Studies of Economic Expertise