Social Protection

Building social protection floors and comprehensive social security systems

Introduction: Social Transfers

Updated by Christina Behrendt , Krzysztof Hagemejer on 24.10.2018

All social security benefits represent social transfers[1], either in cash or in kind, i.e. a transfer of income or services, from one group in a society to another, e.g from the active to the old, the healthy to the sick, or the affluent to the poor, among others. xyz

Social transfers are organized through different social security schemes. These schemes can be classified in two major groups, according to their financing mechanisms: contributory schemes and non-contributory schemes. In any given country, several schemes of different types generally co-exist and may provide benefits for similar contingencies to different population groups.



In contributory schemes the contributions made by beneficiaries (and their employers) determine entitlement to benefits. The most common form of contributory scheme is of a statutory social insurance scheme which usually covers employees, in a number of countries also registered self-employed. Social insurance schemes grant access to health care and other social services (e.g. long-term care) or pay periodic cash benefits throughout the specific contingency covered (e.g. old age, unemployment, employment injury, maternity, sickness, etc.). In some countries there exist also national provident funds that usually pay a lump sum to beneficiaries when particular contingencies occur, but do not provide periodic benefits benefits during the duration of the contingency. Contributory schemes can be wholly financed through contributions but often are partly financed from tax or other sources. There are also non-contributory interventions in contributory schemes subsidizing either benefits or contributions for specified groups of members and beneficiaries.

Conversely, non-contributory schemes normally require no direct contribution from beneficiaries or their employers as a condition of entitlement to receive benefits. Non-contributory schemes are usually financed through tax or other state revenues and may be either targeted to the poor or not.

1) Non-contributory schemes not targeted towards the poor (non-means-tested schemes):

  • Universal schemes for all residents provide benefits under the single condition of residence. Such schemes are mostly put in place to guarantee access to health care. They are generally tax-financed, but may require a co-payment by users of health services; sometimes with exemptions for the poorest.
  • Categorical schemes focus on specific groups of the population. The most frequent forms of categorical schemes are those that transfer income to the elderly above a certain age or children below a certain age. They may also include other types of conditions such as performing or accomplishing certain tasks. Categorical schemes are often referred to as “universal” if they cover all residents belonging to a certain broad category (such as “universal old-age pensions” covering all elderly men and women above a certain age threshold).

2) Non-contributory schemes targeted towards the poor (means-tested schemes) usually use a targeting mechanisms that ensures that these programmes cover only those people whose means (usually their assets or income) fall under a certain threshold. Such targeted schemes are very diverse in their design and features. This diversity may manifest itself through the methods of targeting that are employed, the supplementary conditions required for beneficiaries to access benefits and the inclusion of other interventions that are delivered on top of the actual income transfer itself. Such non-contributory schemes include:

  • (Non-conditional) minimum income support schemes, which are also often referred to as social assistance schemes, are schemes that provide cash benefits to poor people usually based on some form of means-test. Such schemes may also provide or facilitate access to benefits in kind, such as access to health care and other social services.
  • Conditional cash transfers (CCTs) are schemes that provide cash benefits to poor people subject to the condition that they fulfil specific “behavioural” requirements. This may mean they must ensure their children attend school regularly or that they utilize basic preventative nutrition and health-care services;
  • Employment guarantee schemes ensure access to a certain number of workdays per year to poor households, generally providing wages at a relatively low level (typically at the minimum wage level if this is adequately defined). Such programmes are one form of public employment programmes which are often referred to as “public works” programmes. Some employment guarantee schemes employ a means-test, while others use self-targeting mechanisms based on the assumption that the low wages provided will attract only those with a genuine need.

Social transfers are, in their essential nature, a public responsibility, and are typically provided through public institutions. However, the delivery of social security can be, and often is, mandated to private entities or nongovernmental organizations, which can partially complement selected roles usually played by social security. These schemes include: microinsurance, mutual benefit organizations, self-help or community-based insurance schemes, and occupational pension schemes, which are insurance schemes operated by employers on behalf of their employees, by employees themselves or by both, and regulated by collective agreements at the national, sectoral or company levels.

In summary, a wide range of choices and combinations exists regarding the set of financing instruments, the design of benefit entitlements, and administrative arrangements. Each approach has its advantages and its limitations and each will depend on national values, past experience and institutional frameworks. Most national social security systems combine several types of social transfers.  Ultimately, the central objective is that all people enjoy at least a basic level of social security guarantees.♦

[1]  The concept of social transfers has evolved over time, and is used in various ways throughout countries and internationalorganizations. Due to the multiple forms that this concept takes nowadays, achieving definitional clarity is a formidable challenge. While it is not the purpose of this section to put forward any universal definitions, it aims to clarify and provide a better understanding of the relevant terms and concepts as they are used in this website and by the ILO.

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