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.
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The cash payments typically go only to women, who're more likely than men are to make sure that the money is spent on food and clothing, analysts say.Skip to next paragraph
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Bolsa Familia has had its most dramatic effect in Brazil, where 25 percent of the country's residents receive benefits.
Sergei Soares, who studies Bolsa Familia for the Institute of Applied Economic Research, a Brazilian government research institute, said, "It has kept millions of kids from dying from starvation and related illnesses."
In Mexico, researchers have found that the dropout rates of 16- to 19-year-olds in rural areas dropped by 20 percent.
On the health side, researchers have found that children in Mexico gained an extra half-inch in height on average, while malnutrition dropped nearly 7 percent in children younger than 2 in Colombia, according to the World Bank.
However, the programs — which social scientists call "conditional cash transfers" — also demonstrate the limits of anti-poverty programs.
"The programs are not a panacea to poverty," Glassman said. "They are part of the answer to poverty."
Soares, who calls the program a huge success, said it had done little to reduce poverty in Brazil because its greatest impact had been keeping the poorest of the poor alive and making their lives somewhat more bearable. In other words, they've moved up from the bottom rung, but remain poor.
The program also has yet to lift classroom test scores in Mexico, the one country where data are available. It's barely raised school enrollment in urban areas throughout the region because most children already were in school.
"It's so easy and seemingly indefensible to write a check for poor people," said Samuel Morley, a longtime anti-poverty specialist, referring to the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Both institutions have loaned billions of dollars and provided expert advice to developing countries to implement and manage the program.
"But I wish they spent more money on actually improving the quality of schools. The education system is starved for funds."
The schools they attend, he said, "are not very good. They need better materials, computers and teachers."
However, Behrman said that children who spent more time in school tended to be more productive when they entered the work force and to exhibit more self-discipline, and even were better parents.
"More time in school matters," he said.
In Brazil, Soares said, students who spend at least eight years in school are six times less likely to be homicide victims than those who spend four years or less in school.
In Santa Cruz, a struggling town 90 minutes by car from Rio de Janeiro, Selma Floriano, like her neighbors, swears by the program. She sat in a side patio filled with old shoes and a broken-down washing machine and discussed Bolsa Familia.
"Before, children had to leave school to work and help the family out," said Floriano, a 49-year-old mother of eight. "Now, if your children are juggling for tips at a stoplight instead of being in school, they can drop you from the program."