New research highlights Progresa's legacy 20 years on: beneficiaries are earning more

The world's first national conditional cash transfer program shows long-term benefits to education, income, and mobility

New research shows that investing in early childhood creates meaningful impacts.
New research shows that investing in early childhood creates meaningful impacts.

Researchers have found that more than 20 years after the groundbreaking Mexican conditional cash transfer program Progresa launched, individuals who benefited from the program as infants and children earn more, have improved educational outcomes, increased mobility, and delayed marriage and starting a family.

In a working paper recently released by the InterAmerican Development Bank, M. Caridad Araujo and Karen Macours found persistent benefits to millions of Mexicans. Progresa, a national conditional cash transfer program, scaled across the country from 1997 to 2000, and continuing under the name Oportunidades and later as Prospera, was designed to reduce inequality and extreme poverty.

This is one of the first large-scale studies to document evidence of lifetime gains for program graduates and it is “the strongest evidence worldwide that investments in early childhood create meaningful impacts over the long-term,” said Macours. “For decades, we have had really good reasons to believe that those earliest years in a child’s life are critical. But there were concerns about how the impact of investments during this window might fade out over time. With this research we can now see that investments in this sensitive window of early childhood make a meaningful difference over the long-term in educational achievement and poverty reduction.”

Progresa, recognized as the world’s first national conditional cash transfer program, was innovative in three key ways. First, previous attempts to improve health and education around the world had taken a supply-side approach, often by building schools and clinics. Mexican leaders recognized that resource constraints within the poorest households were a critical barrier. They designed Progresa as a demand-side intervention. The program provided cash to households that allowed them to more readily invest in and support their children’s health, nutrition, and education. Second, Mexican leaders recognized they could broaden political support for the program by attaching conditions to the cash, so that it wasn’t seen as “free money.” Third, innovative impact evaluations were part of the program’s initial design. Mexican researchers, in partnership with some of the most well-known impact evaluation specialists around the world, monitored, and regularly reported on the program’s impact to ensure the program was effective. That helped build long-lasting political support that withstood transfers in power.

Progresa provided bi-monthly cash incentives to low-income mothers on the condition that they receive health check-ups, accept nutritional supplements for their young children and for themselves if pregnant, ensure their children enroll and attend primary and lower secondary school (through grade 9), and attend information sessions on nutrition, health, and education practices. The cash incentive increased as a child aged and was slightly more for girls than for boys.

“Early studies showed that the program was successful in increasing school attendance. But questions remained about whether more education would help improve income prospects for children from poor rural areas where education quality was often very low and given labor market frictions,” said Macours. “We showed that when children attend school for longer, it does make a difference. The children got more education and were able to move to areas where they could earn more.”

Though Progresa is no longer functioning - in 2019 Mexican leaders removed the health and nutritional elements of the conditional cash transfer program and left it as a significantly pared down education scholarship program - its legacy lives on around the world. That’s because over the past two decades, Progresa has served as a model for similar programs in more than 60 countries, including Peru’s Juntos and Brazil’s Bolsa Familia. In fact, by 2015, Progresa had inspired conditional cash transfer programs across Latin America that reached approximately 25 percent of the region’s households. In Asia and Africa, it also inspired similar programs, such as Indonesia’s current PKH program.

The new research focused on two cohorts of children benefiting from Progresa. One group were born as Progresa was being rolled out across the country, and benefited from the program during their first 1,000 days of life and beyond. The other group was in 6th grade in 1998, and their mothers received Progresa during their transition to secondary school and thereafter. Both groups were compared with cohorts who were randomly assigned to begin receiving the Progresa benefits 18 months later.

The children randomly assigned to Progresa in utero or as newborns or infants, received 0.4 years more schooling by the time they were 18-20 years old than those who entered the program 18 months later. Early enrollment in the program led to an eight percentage point increase in the likelihood of finishing lower secondary school, an 18 percentage point increase in that of finishing upper secondary school, and a 67 percentage point increase in enrolling in university. The impact on schooling attainment was particularly strong for women. Even the children enrolled in Progresa only as they transitioned to secondary school experienced a seven percentage point increase in the likelihood of finishing lower secondary school (9th grade).

Both groups saw increased income. This was especially true for women whose annual income increased 25 percent when exposed to the program.

The older cohort of beneficiaries also postponed marriage and first childbearing by half a year. The younger cohort is still too young to have its impact assessed for this measure. The researchers wrote that "the delayed start of childbearing and household formation, possibility helped these individuals to settle in a location where the returns to their education were higher or to accumulate some wealth before starting a family. This is important to understand the overall welfare implications of exposure to Progresa.”

This mobility made tracking down the 6,000 former beneficiaries of the program challenging, said Macours. “You can be missing an important part of the impact story if you just look at the community and don’t find the children who benefited and left,” she added. For the study, researchers spoke with beneficiaries who had migrated as far away as Canada and the United States.

This research adds to the considerable existing body of evidence on the importance of a child’s first 1,000 days of life. And it supports Exemplars in Global Health research findings on the impact of Peru's conditional cash transfer program, Juntos. Launched in 2005, Juntos provides low-income mothers with 200 Soles (US$63) every two months, if they follow an aggressive schedule of preventive growth monitoring for their young children, if their school-aged children enroll in school and maintain an attendance rate of at least 85 percent, if mothers attend health and hygiene counseling sessions, and if they obtain an identity card for their newborns. The program strengthened health seeking in rural and remote communities and helped Peru significantly reduce stunting – by 55 percent over eight years.

Similarly, previous shorter-term evaluations of Progresa documented remarkable positive impacts on health and nutrition, including a reduction in infant mortality (which reduced by 17 percent), anemia, and stunting. Many of these impacts can be traced to Progresa’s success is strengthening health-seeking behavior in low-income rural communities.

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