The paper critically reviews the arguments for and against both employment guarantees and income guarantees when viewed as rights-based policy instruments for poverty reduction in a developing economy, with special reference to India. Evidence on India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act does not suggest that the potential for either providing work when needed or reducing current poverty is being realized, despite pro-poor targeting. Instead, work is often rationed by local leaders in poor areas, and the poverty impact is small when all the costs are considered. Decentralized implementation of the right-to-work poses serious challenges in poor places. The option of income support using cash transfers also has both pros and cons. Widely-used methods for finely targeting cash transfers tend to miss many poor people, and discourage those reached from earning extra income. Yet it cannot be presumed that switching to a universal basic income will reduce poverty more than workfare or finely-targeted transfers; that is an empirical question and the answer will undoubtedly vary across settings, belying the generalizations often heard from advocates. Nonetheless, more incentive-neutral, universal and/or state-contingent transfer schemes merit consideration in settings in which existing public spending is skewed against poor people and/or there is scope for raising taxes on the rich.
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