Social assistance programmes involving cash transfers to poor and vulnerable households have become a major focus of development policy in recent years. This article compares the experiences of three such programmes in Latin America: Oportunidades in Mexico, Jefes y Jefas de Hogares in Argentina, and Brazil's social pension. Particular attention is given to each programme's administrative effectiveness, as well as their impacts on poverty, human capital, and household and gender dynamics. More broadly, the article assesses whether these schemes live up to their billing as ‘best practice’ for developing countries, and how they relate to wider shifts in the political economy of welfare provision. It concludes that experiences have been mixed, that claims about positive outcomes are sometimes exaggerated, and that the potential of these programmes to substantially re-orientate welfare systems and promote equitable public policies remains limited.