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Social assistance and the 'dependency syndrome'

Briefing/policy paper

Written by Andrew Shepherd

Briefing/policy paper

This policy brief discusses:

  • Social assistance is critical to counter the insecurity and vulnerability experienced by chronically poor people. Evidence shows that as well as preventing people from sliding into poverty, social assistance supports human development, helps people to access opportunities to exit poverty, and interrupts the intergenerational transmission of poverty.
  • An obstacle to progress on social assistance involves arguments around the ‘dependency syndrome’ – concerns about recipients becoming permanently dependent on ‘handouts’ and losing any inclination to improve their circumstances as a result of it. An associated assumption is that if poor people are given social assistance they will inevitably ‘waste’ it on negative purchases (e.g. alcohol), as opposed to using it constructively.
  • Concerns around the propensity for social assistance to induce ‘dependency’ in Southern countries are largely based on anecdotal evidence, rather than empirical realities.
  • Empirical research shows that social assistance supports savings, human capital development, investment, and enterprise; improves labour-market participation and reduces dependence on adverse contractual employment arrangements; and far from crowding out informal systems of support, it can help improve social networks and support private (informal) forms of protection
  • Evidence from the global South overwhelmingly finds that social assistance is affordable, that recipients make rational choices to improve their circumstances, and that social assistance reduces dependency in the long-term. In other words, social assistance is an important response to chronic poverty.
  • Children overall tend to be the main beneficiaries of social transfers – not just child benefit.
  • Social assistance and the 'dependency syndrome' - Chronic Poverty Research Centre (CPRC) Policy Briefs 22 - Briefing papers

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Andrew Shepherd, Dhana Wadugodapitiya, Alice Evans