This chapter compares types of social assistance and explores their impact on the lives of poor rural people.

In a few Latin American countries, social assistance limited the harm poor people suffered because of the 2007–08 ‘triple F crisis’. This, and international donor support, inspired other countries to introduce or strengthen their own social assistance programmes.

Public work programmes, fee waivers, food support, and cash transfers all potentially qualify as social assistance. However, they are not all equal: most research concludes that, where functioning markets exist, cash transfers are superior to other types of social assistance. They increase consumption and empower recipients, as they support people without making assumptions about their needs. They reduce negative coping behaviours and intra-household inequalities. Overhead costs are relatively low, and cash transfers are easy to monitor and therefore difficult to corrupt.

However, cash transfers do not commonly strengthen health, nutrition, resilience, and children’s learning – other commonly stated social assistance goals. This may change with better targeting and timeliness and with more appropriate (and generally larger) transfer sizes. Cash transfers alone won’t enable people to escape poverty, but they can be a useful part of multifaceted poverty reduction approaches.