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  • Social Assistance in China:Impact Evaluation and Policy Implications
  • GAO Qin (bio), ZHANG Yanxia (bio), and ZHAI Fuhua (bio)

China currently has one of the world's largest social assistance programmes—dibao, or the minimum livelihood guarantee—in terms of both government expenditures and population coverage. Since its inception in 1993 in Shanghai, dibao has been expanded rapidly in both urban and rural China, covering 14.8 million urban beneficiaries and 45.8 million rural beneficiaries in 2016. Centring on dibao, China has built a comprehensive social assistance system that includes education, medical, housing, employment and temporary forms of assistance. Despite the growing body of literature that examines the effects of these programmes, rigorous impact evaluation studies remain scarce and are urgently needed in order to provide sound policy implications for the ongoing reforms and expansion of social assistance in China. This is particularly important as China works towards eliminating poverty by 2020 through combining social assistance with a series of targeted anti-poverty programmes (jingzhun fupin).

In the international context, there has been extensive impact evaluation of both conditional cash transfer (CCT) and unconditional cash transfer (UCT) social assistance programmes, with richer and more robust evaluation evidence for CCT programmes due to the extensive use of experimental designs. UCT programmes such as dibao, however, lag behind in both the number of studies conducted and the rigour of evidence. Impact evaluation of China's social assistance programmes can contribute to the growing international literature and provide cross-national comparative evidence that can inform policy in a broader context. [End Page 3]

In this special issue, the authors present a set of empirical studies that offer rigorous evaluations of dibao, China's primary social assistance programme, and provide useful policy considerations for its future development. Special emphasis is placed on evaluating previously ignored aspects (e.g. stigma and family consumption) and recent developments in rural areas as well as the urban-rural unification of dibao. Drawing from some of the most recent and best data sources available, these studies provide up-to-date empirical evidence on the effectiveness of dibao in multiple dimensions. This introduction highlights the unique contributions of each study and of this special issue as a whole.

The first section comprises two articles that offer conceptual and empirical assessments of two fundamental elements of dibao policy design—the adequacy of dibao assistance standards and the stigma associated with the application process and receipt status.1 The second section has two articles that examine the association between dibao participation and two outcome aspects, namely family consumption and citizens' view of government performance.2 The third section has two articles that focus on the coordination between and unification of urban and rural dibao,3 a recent development that has been promoted by the central government and implemented in many localities. The article in the final section draws from the evidence presented in the preceding three sections and offers a framework and roadmap for the impact evaluation and performance monitoring of dibao.4


A social policy's design fundamentally reflects the philosophies and intended goals of the policy. It also has both explicit and implicit implications for the policy implementation. By drawing from administrative data, and by using both historic and comparative analyses, Guan Xinping conducts a thorough evaluation of the goals, principles and adequacy of the dibao standard, which serves as an eligibility criterion and a benchmark for benefit amounts. He first explains the functions, basic features and the unique [End Page 4] significance of the dibao standard in the Chinese context versus similar social assistance programmes in other countries. Specifically, the dibao standard, by design and definition, is based on income only and largely ignores family assets, consumption needs and other sociodemographic characteristics. In its implementation, however, local officials often consider these multifaceted factors in their screening and determination of dibao beneficiaries. This discrepancy allows room for autonomy but also leads to inconsistency and possible mistargeting.

One unique feature of dibao, compared to other social assistance programmes, is its role as a strong "gatekeeper" to determine not only applicants' eligibility for dibao but also a series of other benefits...


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