Transfer payments to (persons) as a percent of federal revenue in the United States
Transfer payments to (persons + business) in the United States

In macroeconomics and finance, a transfer payment (also called a government transfer or simply fiscal transfer) is a redistribution of income and wealth by means of the government making a payment, without goods or services being received in return (in contrast to Financial transaction). These payments are considered to be non-exhaustive because they do not directly absorb resources or create output.[1] Examples of transfer payments include welfare, financial aid, social security, and government subsidies for certain businesses.

Unlike the exchange transaction which mutually benefits all the parties involved in it, the transfer payment consists of a donor and a recipient, with the donor giving up something of value without receiving anything in return. Transfers can be made both between individuals and entities, such as private companies or governmental bodies. These transactions can be both voluntary or involuntary and are generally motivated either by the altruism of the donor or the malevolence of the recipient.[2]

For the purpose of calculating gross domestic product (GDP), government spending does not include transfer payments, which are the reallocation of money from one party to another rather than expenditure on newly produced goods and services.[3]


A criticism of transfer payments is that they do not produce outcomes that are economically advantageous. Governments pool taxes and other sources of revenue together and spend the money to further a certain agenda. Some of the spending pays for goods and services, such as buildings, equipment, and government worker salaries. These expenditures are exchanges in which money is traded for something with a recognized value. The payments may be viewed as boosting industrial activity and employment. However, government transfer payments do not boost production or economic activity. For example, foreign aid does not necessarily prompt foreign trade.[4] Additionally, some argue that welfare programs, such as unemployment benefits, reduce incentives to take paid work.

Furthermore, the macroeconomic effect of transfer payments is reduced in the lower income countries and regions/states. The reasons for such disparity are the following:[5]

Methods of payment


Main article: Cash transfer

More than 100 million poor people worldwide receive a government transfer payment.[citation needed] It is estimated that 90% of high-income nations make these payments via electronic transfer methods, whereas over half of the world's developing countries utilizes paper payments such as cash or checks.[citation needed] Transfer payment via cash is the most popular method of transferring benefits to beneficiaries. However, cash transfer programs are constrained by three factors: financial resources, institutional capacity, and ideology, particularly in countries in the Global South.[6] Many governments in poorer countries, where cash transfers could potentially have the most impressive impact, are often unwilling to implement such programmes due to fears of inflation and more importantly, dependency on the transfers.[7]

In-kind transfer

In-kind transfer payments consist of individual goods and services provided to households by governmental bodies and non-profit institutions serving households (NPISHs), which are either acquired on the market or produced as non-market output by governmental bodies or NPISHs.[8]

The items included are:

Social security benefit

Primarily, social security benefits are designed to provide income continuity to those persons who have retired from labour force because of either inability to work (physical disability or mental trauma), to find employment or due to old age (retirement).

These include, but are not limited to:[5][9]

Around the globe


In Australia, the horizontal fiscal imbalance arises because of the mismatch between the tax revenues and government expenses for the various state and territorial governments. This imbalance is addressed by a horizontal fiscal equalisation (HFE) policy overseen by the Commonwealth Grants Commission.


In Canada, Federal-Provincial transfers usually refer to a system of payments from the federal government to the provinces as part of Canada's "fiscal federalism" through explicit and implicit redistribution.[10] These transfers are intended to assist provinces with less fiscal capacity than others in providing comparable public services in all regions, including health and education.[10] Transfers include explicit programs such as equalization payments, Canada Health Transfer (CHT) and the Canada Social Transfer (CST) (formerly the Canada Health and Social Transfer) and Territorial Formula Financing. There are also implicit transfers that result from federal taxation and spending decisions and policies.[10]

Canada's transfer payments originated in the British North America Act (1867)'s Sections 118 as provincial subsidies.[10] By 1907, these payments were altered as new provinces joined the Dominion.[10] In a 1957 arrangement, poorer provinces received annual payments: Prince Edward Island received $2.5 million and the three provinces, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick each received $7.5 million.[10] These payments ended and were rolled into the 1967 equalization program intended to "enable each province to provide an adequate level of public services without resort to rates of taxation substantially higher than those of other provinces."[10]

In Canada, transfers payments are contentious and equalization formulas are often revised.[10] Implicit transfers through federal taxation, for example, are greater in higher income provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario and lower in provinces such as Manitoba, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces. Canada measures average fiscal capacity of each province which varies widely. Alberta is the highest at $12,577 per person and PEI is the lowest at $6,013 per person. In 2016 federal income tax in Alberta was more than $8,000 compared to less than $3,000 in PEI. All provinces pay the same federal tax rates.[10]

Economist Trevor Tombe wrote that by 2018, transfer payments had become "complex arrangements" that are much larger than the original subsidies and are "more equally distributed".[10] By 2018, inter-provincial redistribution has decreased to less than 2% of Canada's GDP, its lowest in 60 years. In the early 1980s it was 3.5%.[10]


Since July 2011, existing regional and local social security schemes, including pooling arrangements, are gradually being unified under the country's first national law on social transfer payments. The government aims to establish a comprehensive, equitable, and unified pension system that covers both urban and rural residents by 2020. In 2016, the government decided to establish a unified health insurance system for both rural and non-salaried urban residents. The government has also announced that medical insurance and maternity insurance programs will be merged.[11]


India has four types of social transfer payments – old age and disability benefits, sickness and maternity benefits, work injury transfers, and unemployment benefits. Most sources of payments are employers (via provident funds), and the government.[12]

United States

The U.S. still utilizes paper transfer payments in its Social Security administration as many recipients, particularly those in lower-income categories, are unbanked, i.e. do not have a bank account to facilitate direct deposits. However, the U.S. has been able to implement electronic transfer systems in its food stamps and education assistance programs.[13]

See also


  1. ^ Bishop, Matthew (2012). "Economics A–Z terms beginning with T –transfer". The Economist. Retrieved 11 July 2012. Payments that are made without any good or service being received in return. Much Public Spending goes on transfers, such as pensions and WELFARE benefits. Private-sector transfers include charitable donations and prizes to lottery winners.
  2. ^ Lampman, Robert J. (2016), "Transfer Payments", The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 1–3, doi:10.1057/978-1-349-95121-5_1755-1, ISBN 9781349951215
  3. ^ Hall, Robert E.; Lieberman, Marc (2012). "Chapter 6: Production, Income, and Employment". Macroeconomics: Principles and Applications. Cengage Learning. p. 145. ISBN 978-1-111-82235-4.
  4. ^ Evans, Kim Masters (2014). "Transfer Payments," Encyclopedia of Business and Finance. Gale. pp. 750–752.
  5. ^ a b Smeeding, Timothy M. (1977). "The Antipoverty Effectiveness of In-Kind Transfers". The Journal of Human Resources. 12 (3): 360–378. doi:10.2307/145496. ISSN 0022-166X. JSTOR 145496.
  6. ^ Slater, Rachel; Farrington, John (November 27, 2009). "Cash Transfers: Targeting". Overseas Development Institute. Archived from the original on July 4, 2011.
  7. ^ McCord, Anna (November 2009). "Cash Transfers and Political Economy in Sub-Saharan Africa". Overseas Development Institute. Archived from the original on 2011-07-04.
  8. ^ "OECD Glossary of Statistical Terms - Social transfers in kind Definition". Retrieved 2019-04-28.
  9. ^ "Benefits | Social Security Administration". Retrieved 2019-04-28.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Tombe, Trevor (nd), "Final, Unalterable (and Up for Negotiation): Federal-Provincial Transfers in Canada" (PDF), University of Calgary, Working Papers 2018-13, retrieved December 10, 2018
  11. ^ "Social Security Programs Throughout the World: Asia and the Pacific, 2014: China". US Social Security Administration. 2014. Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  12. ^ "Social Security Programs Throughout the World: Asia and the Pacific, 2014: India". Social Security Administration. 2014.
  13. ^ "General Guidelines for the Development of Government Payment Programs" (PDF). World Bank. 2012.