Brazil becomes antipoverty showcase
The country's Bolsa Familia program – which pays poor mothers to keep their children in school and follow healthcare rules – is reducing poverty.
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"We have security now," says Dida Santos, who lives in a simple, one-room home with a few chickens in the backyard. She used to survive on the beans and corn she and her husband grow and the few animals they raise – going to the market only when there was spare money. Now, she makes weekly trips, and has saved up enough to buy a refrigerator. It's something she never needed before – she had no spare food to put in it.Skip to next paragraph
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While Bolsa Familia has played an important role in reducing poverty, the government has also worked to create more formal jobs – 8.1 million more since Lula took office – and raised the minimum wage to 415 reais ($187) a month from 200 reais ($90) a month.
The number of those in poverty dropped to 18 percent in 2007 from 19 percent the year before. According to government figures, the incomes of the poorest increased 22 percent in the past five years, while the rich increased 4.9 percent. And the Getulio Vargas Foundation in August reported that 52 percent of Brazilians – a majority – are now part of the middle class. "There are very few countries that reduce inequality and poverty at the same time," says Rosani Cunha, the Bolsa Familia director in Brasilia.
The world's first conditional cash transfer programs were introduced in Brazil in 1995 at the municipal level, and were implemented at a national level in Mexico the following year.
The concept has since taken a foothold in Latin America, where more than a dozen such programs have been launched. Another dozen are being implemented around the rest of the world. But today Brazil's program has grown into the largest, and among the most successful, in the world. It serves 11 million families (close to 50 million people), or a quarter of the population. It draws attention because of its size and because it is decentralized. While beneficiaries get paid via debit card from the federal government, it is the state and municipal governments that administer the program.
"Many countries are looking to Brazil as an example of how to implement these programs. They are looking at how Brazil has done this at such a massive scale. Study tours are going to Brazil all the time to learn from this experience," says Kathy Lindert, a human development economist at the World Bank who worked in Brasilia while Bolsa Familia expanded. "The impacts are impressive. We are seeing one of largest, most unequal countries get more equal."
Ms. Cunha's team has traveled all over the world, from Egypt to India. Last year, Brazil implemented its first pilot program in Ghana, helping the West African country develop a program that serves 12,000 families, with aims to reach 38,000 by the end of the year.
The model is not without its critics, however.
Some have blamed it for disincentivizing employment – which even supporters of the program attest to. For example, Geraldina Rodrigues Pereira, whose tiny shop sells the bread, pasta, and rice that residents buy in Manari, says that her store is bustling now that residents have a steady monthly income. But now she can't find anyone willing to harvest her small patch of land next to her house. "Nobody wants to do the work anymore," she says.