Key message 1 – Social assistance is the main tool to reduce poverty.

There are different types of social programmes such as social protection, labour market interventions, and health and education programmes. Social assistance schemes are non-contributory interventions (i.e. the government or other providers pay the full amount of the assistance) designed to help individuals and households cope with chronic poverty, destitution, and vulnerability. Examples include unconditional and conditional cash transfers, non-contributory social pensions, food and in-kind transfers, school feeding programmes, public works, and school fee waivers.

Of the different kinds of social programmes, this brief focuses on social assistance because it:

  1. Lays the foundation of all social spending. Social assistance aims to reach the poorest and/or most vulnerable sections of society and provide a minimum basic standard of living.
  2. Reaches the largest number of people. Of all the different social protection and labour schemes (social insurance, labour market interventions, and social assistance), social assistance has the highest levels of coverage. As shown in the figure below, social assistance covers 46% of the total population in lower middle-income countries and 15% in low-income countries. It also constitutes 16% of the total income of the poorest 20% of the population.
  3. Reduces poverty. Social assistance has made a substantial contribution to poverty reduction. In developing countries across the world, the poverty headcount ratio (i.e. the percentage of the population below the poverty line) is 7% lower and the poverty gap falls by 14% once social assistance transfers are factored in.

Of the different kinds of social assistance, unconditional cash transfers have brought the greatest number of people out of poverty (3.7%), followed by social pensions (2%), and conditional cash transfers (0.8%).

Figure 1: Coverage of social protection schemes by income group