The Impact of a Cash Transfer Program on Life Outcomes: Evidence from Uruguay

Economics of Public Policy master project by Karina Colombo, Gabrielle Lohner, and Eric Ramirez-Diaz ’18

TUS card

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series showcasing Barcelona GSE master projects by students in the Class of 2018. The project is a required component of every master program.


Karina Colombo, Gabrielle Lohner, and Eric Ramirez-Diaz

Master’s Program

Economics of Public Policy

Paper Abstract

Our paper analyzes the impact of a cash transfer program targeting households in extreme poverty in Uruguay, called the Tarjeta Uruguay Social (henceforth referred to as TUS). In the past decades, cash transfers have become one of the main social assistance policies used to address poverty and inequality in developing countries. Their objective is to reduce vulnerability by increasing and smoothing household income, although additional objectives are usually defined depending on the program and country, such as increasing access to health and education, and reducing food insecurity (DFID 2011; Honorati et al. 2015).

The impact of these programs on different life outcomes has been widely studied. Overall, positive impacts on poverty, food insecurity, child school enrollment, labor outcomes, health and social cohesion have been found (DFID 2011; ODI 2016). Nevertheless, more research is still needed to understand the channels and particular aspects that determine their success, since countries differ widely in the details of program design. In our research, by taking advantage of considerable design modifications since the implementation of TUS, we evaluate the impact of the amount of the transfer and the benefit duration on relevant outcomes.

The Tarjeta Uruguay Social (TUS) is a conditional cash transfer program implemented in 2009 which aims at assisting those in situations of extreme poverty in Uruguay. It targets the 60,000 worst-off households by providing them with a monthly cash transfer on a prepaid magnetic card. This card can be used to purchase food items, cleaning supplies, and hygiene products, excluding cigarettes and alcohol. Eligibility for the program is based on the Critical Needs Index (CNI), a proxy means test that evaluates household poverty, using variables associated to education, dwelling, access to durable goods and household composition. The program has undergone many modifications since its inception, including increasing the number of participants, changing the eligibility criteria, and a doubling of the benefit for half of the recipients. Our analysis begins in 2013, in which the program had 60,000 participants, and the poorest 30,000 according to the CNI received a doubling of their benefit, creating two benefit categories: Simple TUS and Double TUS. In our research, we exploit the doubling of the benefit based on the CNI by using a Fuzzy Regression Discontinuity Design to evaluate the impact of the amount of the benefit on life outcomes.

The availability of an extensive set of administrative data allowed us to evaluate the impact of the doubling on an array of outcomes. There are many different channels through which this cash transfer program could have positive effects, since the resources freed up by the relaxation of the household budget constraint could be used differently according to household preferences. Therefore, by taking advantage of a rich set of administrative data, we analyzed 65 outcomes: housing and living conditions, food insecurity, formal labor market work, education enrollment of children and adolescents, prenatal and birth health conditions, and family composition. Additionally, we analyze how the duration of the benefit affects the impact of the program by comparing the effects for beneficiaries who receive the transfer for different time periods. We analyze short-term outcomes for those who receive the transfer for less than a year; medium-term outcomes for those who receive the transfer for two to three years; and long-term outcomes for those who receive the transfer consistently for three years.


Probability of Receiving Double TUS According to Distance from Eligibility Threshold by Month, 2013. Analysis begins in May 2013.

Our results show than an increase in the amount of a cash transfer can in fact have important impacts on the life outcomes of recipients. Positive effects were found with regard to living conditions, with an increase in investment in durable goods and a betterment of housing conditions, such as purchasing water heaters or washing machines, adding a bathroom to the home, and upgrading from a trash roof to a concrete one. Additionally, results show positive impacts concerning individual outcomes, with improvements regarding prenatal care and months of formal work observed. Nevertheless, some negative results were found in the short-term, which could potentially be explained by an attempt of manipulation by the beneficiaries in order to ensure continued benefit provision under uncertainty. Results also show that the duration of the benefit has a considerable impact on how the transfer is spent. More positive significant household results are found in the medium-term, while individual results become stronger in the long-term. The increasing effects of more persistent benefits could potentially be explained due to uncertainty in the short-term regarding whether the benefit will continue to be provided, which decreases over time.

This study contributes to the literature of poverty alleviation policies by providing evidence which can be used to improve the design of cash transfer programs. The positive effects found in this paper from comparing different amounts of the transfer within the same program indicate that the monetary amount of the benefit is a relevant policy parameter with consequences for the effectiveness of the program. Additionally, the results for heterogeneous effects by benefit duration indicate that the persistence of the transfer is another relevant aspect of program design. The evidence provided in this paper indicates that a predefined duration upon entering the program together with a minimum duration of one year could constitute a good practice. This may mitigate negative effects regarding household manipulation attempts and potentiate positive effects by reducing income volatility and increasing housing investments. Our results suggest that further research on benefit size and timing is imperative for policy design of cash transfers, one of the main tools to reach universal social protection.

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More about the EPP Program at the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics

Aspirations and Academic Achievement: The Spillover Effects of Beca 18 on Educational Outcomes of Younger Students

Elena Costarelli, Rosamaría Dasso Arana, and Bárbara Sparrow Alcázar analyze the effect of being near a Beca 18 beneficiary -a new scholarship program for high school students- on the academic achievement of second grade children.

Beca 18 Peru

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series showcasing Barcelona GSE master projects by students in the Class of 2016. The project is a required component of every master program. Photo: PRONABEC

Elena CostarelliRosamaría Dasso Arana, Bárbara Sparrow Alcázar

Master’s Program:


Using administrative data from the Ministry of Education in Peru, we analyze the effect of being near a Beca 18 beneficiary -a new scholarship program for high school students- on the academic achievement of second grade children. Previous literature suggests that information about the potential returns to education plays an important role on students’ achievement. Our hypothesis is that having a fellow nearby might change the perception of younger children and of their parents about returns to education, thus leading them to invest more on it. We use a difference in difference approach to test this hypothesis in a school panel data setting. As we are interested in the effect of information transmission, we use GPS location data to identify which schools are near a Beca 18 beneficiary. We test for several distance specifications with consistent results. Our findings suggest a positive spillover effect of the program on younger children in both reading and math performance.


Access to tertiary education is a well-known motivation for students to perform better at school. Good students are usually the ones that are able to attend better universities which in turn allows them to improve their living conditions. This is true in most developed countries, where access to good quality higher education is a possibility for most students. However, in the case of many developing countries, market failures and government limitations do not allow students to consider this possibility.

When facing the decision of educating their children, many families may consider it to be an unprofitable investment. Little information about the benefits of education in terms of higher future income and the lack of success stories among people close to them may all contribute to this perception. In this regard, the impact of a program that makes access to tertiary education may possibly affect the way people value education in a significant way. If parents and children are aware that been a good student may have a tangible future reward, their investment decisions may change.

Access to tertiary education is greatly limited to children from poor families in Peru. To address this issue, the Peruvian government recently created the Beca 18 program. Beca 18 is a merit/need based scholarship program that targets students applying to higher education institutions such as universities and technical institutes. The program gives selected students the opportunity of attending the best tertiary schools in the country. Before the program existed, even access to public universities was very limited. Beca 18 can be considered as one of the first real opportunities for children of low resources in Peru to access high quality tertiary education.

Current literature suggests that there is a positive relationship between policies that increase the perceived returns of education and educational outcomes among children. There is also evidence that supports that future access to scholarships and merit based programs may encourage better school performance. In this paper, we will analyze the impact of Beca 18 on the school performance of second grade children. To do this, we use test score data from the Ministry of Education and administrative records from the Beca 18 program. Using a difference in difference approach, we were able to identify a positive impact of being near a program beneficiary on both math and reading proficiency outcomes. 


Our results suggest that the Beca 18 program has relevant spillover effects on the educational outcomes of younger children. Guided by our conceptual framework, we would expect this result to be a consequence of the fact that children and parents exposed to Beca 18 beneficiaries update their information about perceived returns to education, leading them to invest more time and resources in obtaining better educational results.

We also find that effects on math test scores are stronger and more robust to several specifications than effects on reading test scores. This result is consistent with findings of other studies suggesting that math scores are more quickly affected by changes in study behavior. We also find that the effect of being near a beneficiary decreases as the distance to the school of the beneficiary increases. This result is consistent with our hypothesis that the improvements in educational outcomes are a result of information transmission.

Another result worth discussing is that we found that the effect of the program is larger when the number of beneficiaries nearby increases. This suggests that investment decisions are affected by how likely it is to get the scholarship. It may also suggest that the investment decision may vary if there are more people acting as role models.

Overall, our results are relevant from a policy perspective. We present evidence that the program has relevant spillover effects that should be considered when evaluating its benefits. As public programs in Peru are under continuous scrutiny, further evidence that supports the program’s effectiveness is of greatly useful to ensure its continuity. Also, as our results suggest that the number of beneficiaries matter for investment decisions, the expansion of the program could lead to even greater spillover effects.

It is still important to note that the effects found here are not the main intended effects of Beca 18: the scholarship program was designed as a supply side policy intervention. Our findings support the idea that this program can have important demand side effects worth considering. We would also expect for these effects to increase over time: the success stories of current beneficiaries in the labor market could lead to an even greater increase of the expected returns of education.


Riding the barrel: How commodity exporters can maneuver through price rapids

Master project by Martin Aragoneses, Mario Giarda, and Nikolas Schöll. Barcelona GSE Master’s in Economics

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series showcasing Barcelona GSE master projects by students in the Class of 2015. The project is a required component of every master program.

Martin Aragoneses, Mario Giarda, and Nikolas Schöll

Master’s Program:

Paper Abstract:

We develop a multi-sector small open economy DSGE model with government and exogenous sources of income, in particular where the country is a commodity producer such that income from commodity exports provides a large proportion of government revenue, making international uncertainty about the future commodity price matter. The objectives of this paper are to study the differences between level shocks and uncertainty shocks to commodity prices in terms of how they affect the economy, and to analyze the convenience of different fiscal rules when we allow the income processes to have moving uncertainty.

In an application, we estimate the parameters of a stochastic volatility model for Angola and Chile and we feed them to the model to see different economic responses to uncertainty shocks. Then, we investigate whether the fiscal rule should depend on the type of income process in general. In our evaluation, we focus on the short term implications of the rule in reducing volatility, wondering if it is better to spend the resources in the present than have an insurance against the cycles? Finally, we discuss some policy implications regarding the implementation of those rules. Can the rule be tractable by the agents on the model? Are the best rules sufficiently simple to be followed by the public and finally credible as an anchor of the expectation

Presentation Slides:

The Mission: Human Capital and the Persistence of Fortune – Job Market Paper

Felipe ValenciaThe following job market paper summary was contributed by Felipe Valencia (GPEFM). Felipe is a job market candidate at UPF. He will be available for interviews at the Spanish Economic Association Meeting in in December, the ASSA and the Royal Economic Society Postgraduate Meeting in January.


The importance of history in economic development is well-established (Nunn 2009; Spolaore and Wacziarg 2013), but less is known about the specific channels of transmission which drive this persistence in outcomes. Dell (2010) stresses the negative effect of the mita in Latin America, and Nunn and Wantchekon (2011) document the adverse impact of African slavery through decreased trust. But did other colonial arrangements lead to positive outcomes in the long run?

I address this question in my Job Market Paper by analyzing the long-term economic consequences of European missionary activity in South America. I focus on missions founded by the Jesuit Order in the Guarani lands during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in modern-day Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. This case is unique in that Jesuits were expelled from the Americas in 1767 –following European “Great Power” politics— precluding any continuation effect. While religious conversion was the official aim of the missions, they also increased human capital formation by schooling children and training adults in various crafts. My research question is whether such a one-off historical human capital intervention can have long-lasting effects.

The author at the site of one of the Jesuit missions on Guarani lands in South America.


To disentangle the national institutional effects from the human capital shock the missions supplied, I use within country variation in missionary activity in three different countries:

Note: The map shows the exact location of the Guarani Jesuit Missions (black crosses) with district level boundaries for Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.


The area under consideration was populated by a single semi-nomadic indigenous tribe, so I can abstract from the direct effects of different pre-colonial tribes (Maloney and Valencia 2012; Michalopoulos and Papaioannou, 2013). The Guarani area also has similar geographic and weather characteristics, though I control for these variables in the estimation.

Key Findings

Using municipal level data for five states (Corrientes and Misiones in Argentina, Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, and Itapúa and Misiones in Paraguay), I find substantial positive effects of Jesuit missions on human capital and income, 250 years after the missionaries were expelled. In municipalities where Jesuits carried out their apostolic efforts, median years of schooling and literacy levels remain higher by 10-15%. These differences in educational attainment have also translated into higher modern per capita incomes of nearly 10%. I then analyze potential cultural mechanisms that can drive the results. To do so I conduct a household survey and lab-in-the-field experiments in Southern Paraguay. I find that respondents in missionary areas have higher non-cognitive abilities and exhibit more pro-social behavior.


Even though I use country and state-fixed effects as well as weather and geographic controls, Jesuit missionaries might have chosen favorable locations beyond such observable factors. Hence the positive effects might be due to this initial choice and not to the missionary treatment per se.

To address the potential endogeneity of missionary placement, I conduct two empirical tests. The first one is a placebo that looks at missions that were initially founded by the Jesuits but were abandoned early on (before 1659). I can thereby compare places that were initially picked by missionaries with those that actually received the missionary treatment. I find no effect for such “placebo” missions, which suggests that what mattered in the long run is what the missionaries did and not where they first settled.

Second, I conduct a comparison with the neighboring Guarani Franciscan Missions. The comparison is relevant as both orders wanted to convert souls to Christianity, but Jesuits emphasized education and technical training in their conversion. Contrary to the Jesuit case, I find no positive long-term impact on either education or income for Franciscan Guarani Missions. This suggests that the income differences I estimate are likely to be driven by the human capital gains the Jesuits provided.

In addition, I employ an IV strategy, where I use as instruments the distance from early exploration routes and distance to Asuncion. Distance from the exploration routes of Mendoza (1535-1537) and Cabeza de Vaca (1541-1542) serves as a proxy for the isolation of the Jesuit missions (in the spirit of Duranton et al. 2014). Asuncion, in turn, served as a base for missionary exploration during the foundational period, but became less relevant for Rio Grande do Sul after the Treaty of Madrid (1750) transferred this territory to Portuguese hands. For this reason and to avoid the direct capital –and Spanish Empire—effects, I use this variable only for the Brazilian subsample of my data (as in Becker and Woessmann 2009; Dittmar 2011). The first-stage results are strongly significant throughout (with F-statistics well above 10), and the second-stage coefficients for literacy and income retain their sign and significance –appearing slightly larger—in the IV specifications.

Extensions and Mechanisms

To complete the empirical analysis, I examine cultural outcomes and specific mechanisms that can sustain the transmission of human capital from the missionary period to the present. I find that respondents in missionary areas possess superior non-cognitive abilities, as proxied by higher “Locus of Control” scores (Heckman et al., 2006). Using standard experiments from the behavioral literature, I find that respondents in missionary areas exhibit greater altruism, more positive reciprocity, less risk seeking and more honest behavior. I use priming techniques to further investigate whether these effects are the result of greater religiosity –which appears not to be the case.

In terms of mechanisms, my results indicate that municipalities closer to historic missions have changed the sectoral composition of employment, moving away from agriculture and towards manufacturing and services (consistent with Botticini and Eckstein, 2012). In particular, I document that these places still produce more handicrafts such as embroidery, a skill introduced by the Jesuits. People closer to former Jesuit missions also seem to participate more in the labor force and work more hours, consistent with Weber (1978). I also find that indigenous knowledge —of traditional medicine and myths—was transmitted more from generation to generation in the Jesuit areas. Unsurprisingly, given their acquired skills, I find that indigenous inhabitants from missionary areas were differentially assimilated into colonial and modern societies. Additional robustness tests suggest that the results are not driven by migration, urbanization or tourism.