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Latin America makes a dent in poverty with 'conditional cash' programs

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet will be among the speakers at a forum on the successful programs Tuesday in New York.

By Tyler BridgesMcClatchy Newspapers / September 21, 2009

Santa Cruz, Brazil

Denise de Oliveira lost her job as a janitor in June when she had to stay home to care for her 13-year-old son, who had pneumonia. The 45-year-old single mother of four has kept food on the table, however, thanks to a government program that pays her family $70 per month.

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"It doesn't give you enough to buy everything you want, but it sure helps," said de Oliveira, who lives on a dirt street in this impoverished town on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

Unlike traditional government handouts, however, this popular anti-poverty program, which has spread throughout Latin America and even to New York City, requires that de Oliveira's children stay in school. The children also must have twice-a-year health exams and be vaccinated against diseases.

The program goes by different names — Bolsa Familia (Family Fund) in Brazil and Oportunidades (Opportunities) in Mexico, the most populous countries it's in — and has slightly different rules depending on the country. Analysts say it's become the most successful anti-poverty program in years because it requires the poor to do something meaningful and measurable in exchange for government charity.

"I have worked in this field for 30 years in every region of the world," said Helena Uribe, a senior anti-poverty specialist at the World Bank in Washington. "This is the one (program) that works. It has showed that you can reach poor people today and position them to improve opportunities over a lifetime."

"The programs are popular because they have quick impacts that are measurable," said Amanda Glassman, a specialist in the program at the Inter-American Development Bank. "Well-child visits go up. Vaccination rates go up. School attendance goes up. Kids are taller for their age, even if they've been in the program for only a year."

Fears that the program would encourage families to have more children, stay at home rather than work to collect benefits or become playthings of patronage-happy politicians have proved to be unfounded, Glassman added.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet will be among the speakers at a forum on the program Tuesday in New York.

The program began in Brazil and Mexico in the mid-1990s. About 100 million people now are enrolled in it in Latin America, including 45 million in Brazil and 12 million in Mexico, according to the World Bank. Every Latin American country except Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua has some version of the program, and millions more receive benefits in places such as Bangladesh, Kenya, and Pakistan.