Is cash king? The revival of the cash versus food transfers debate

Should India replace its public food distribution system (PDS) with cash transfers? The question, which sparked lively debate among opponents and supporters of such transition, somewhat epitomizes a longstanding quandary on when is it best to provide food instead of cash for food security.

To be sure, discussions on ‘cash versus food’ are shaped by a range of issues. For instance, political economy realities tend to influence what is provided to recipient countries or households. Also, in-kind food is often considered ‘paternalistic’, but in practice people’s preference for food or cash may hinge on season, price levels, gender, or simple pragmatism. In the case of India, for example, a recent study shows that where the PDS work well people prefer food, and vice versa. Moreover, in some societies the distribution of food may symbolize a sense of unity, while in others it may evoke the image of past famines. In short, there are many variables that need to be taken into account for a balanced and credible debate.