Cash Transfers and
the New Welfare States
From Neoliberalism to
the Politics of Distribution
Something unexpected has happened in the last two de cades. We have
become used to a debate pitting triumphalist accounts of the global
spread of “free- market” capitalism (decreeing the end of history, or tell-
ing us the world is flat) against critical accounts of that same ascendancy
that tell a formally similar story but with the moral polarity inverted.1 But
both sides of this great debate seem to agree on the story’s fundamental
plotline: unfettered, “free- market” capitalism is regnant, and “neolib-
eral,” market- based systems of economy and governance are everywhere
on the march, while the welfare state is embattled, in retreat, or barely
hanging on. In this context, it has been profoundly surprising to see that
recent years, in a host of different sites across the global South, have in
fact yielded something quite different: the creation and expansion of ex-
tensive social welfare programs targeting the poor anchored in schemes
that directly transfer small amounts of cash to large numbers of low-
income people.
The ideological narratives of market triumph (pro or con) made it easy
to miss this development, since the narratives seemed agreed that neolib-
eralism is (as sociologist Peter Evans [2008, 217] put it) “congenitally blind
to the need for social protection” and that “the poor” therefore must, in
these market- friendly and state- slashing times, receive less attention (not
more) from national states. But they also made it easy to suppose that
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