Social assistance and idiosyncratic shocks


What does recent literature tell us about the effectiveness of social assistance interventions in reducing individual and household vulnerability to idiosyncratic shocks in low-income contexts?


While there is a growing literature documenting and analysing how social assistance programmes can help in reducing income poverty and food insecurity, very little systematic empirical research has been done concerning their effectiveness in reducing individual and household vulnerability to idiosyncratic shocks. This rapid review focuses on cash transfers and public works programmes, as they have received the most attention in terms of relevant empirical evaluation studies.

There is overlap and interaction between different types of shocks and the coping strategies deployed in response. For example, a regional drought (covariate shock) may lead to the death of an income-earning household member (idiosyncratic shock).  The major idiosyncratic shocks discussed most commonly in recent academic, practitioner and policy literature are: economic, crime, health and familial.

Key findings from this report include:

  • There is some evidence to suggest that social assistance programmes can stabilise household consumption and help households to decrease negative coping strategies during shocks.
  • However, whether social assistance interventions are fully effective at protecting individuals or households against particular types of shocks, or whether they make specific groups of households more or less resilient than others to particular shocks, has not been investigated in great detail.
  • Some studies suggest that cash and conditional cash transfer programmes are often not flexible enough to provide adequate assistance to individuals and households in the event of idiosyncratic shocks.
  • According to some authors, joint or complementary approaches to social assistance can be effective in helping households build resilience to idiosyncratic shocks, although this report did not find much in the way of rigorous empirical investigation of this issue.
  • There is an evidence gap on how social assistance programmes can be attuned to gender dynamics in ways that reduce the vulnerability of women to idiosyncratic shocks.


Suggested citation

Laws, E. (2016). Social assistance and idiosyncratic shocks (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1383). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.