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How Social Policies Are Reinvented in Crises: Lessons from Cash Transfer Programs in Latin America During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 socioeconomic crisis is forcing 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. In Latin America, existing Conditional Cash Transfer programs (or CCTs) allowed governments to quickly provide emergency relief for vulnerable families. Existing CCTs also served as a policy paradigm for how to identify and reach the “new poor,” namely middle-class families that faced downward mobility because of the pandemic. As a result, 38% of households in Latin America benefitted from emergency cash transfers between 2020-2021, while only 18.5% households received income transfers before the pandemic. This project will compare the diverse ways in which previous experiences with CCTs determined how COVID-19 cash assistance were envisioned and operationalized in Brazil and Colombia, the two countries with the largest CCTs in South America. Further, this study will 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. The research seeks to provide lessons from the Latin American experience with cash transfers during the pandemic in order to inform comparative debates on poverty solutions.

Luciana de Souza Leão, U-M Sociology