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Brazil's new plan to beat poverty

Brazil just launched a new, multibillion-dollar program to aid the 16 million Brazilians still living in extreme poverty. The program is the latest in an effort across Latin America to stamp out poverty.

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They have transformed towns like Japeri, more than an hour ride on a quivering and rusty train from the city of Rio de Janeiro. The town ranks at the bottom of the state’s human development index, and mothers have long struggled to feed their kids or care for their sick babies. But today some 9,500 families in this town of 95,000 receive the Bolsa Familia stipends.

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Marilsa Martins is one of them. Her $127 monthly check is more than she earns as an embroiderer in a good month, about $93. The mother of seven shares her own thin bed with four children. Like dos Santos, Ms. Martins will soon be receiving an additional $190 a month under a complementary state program to “Brazil Without Misery.”

“My hope is to improve even more, to buy a bunk bed, to buy shoes,” she says after stirring a pork and pineapple stew sent home by a daughter who works in a restaurant. The new stipend will help her pay off a loan she took out to buy a small clothes wringer for washing. “I hope in the name of Jesus that it really comes.”

Helping women like Martins and dos Santos is key to the new Brazil, say officials. “Coming from the achievements we have had in the last 10 years... it is possible, viable, to define as a goal the overcoming of extreme poverty in the next four years,” says Rio de Janeiro State Secretary for Social Assistance and Human Rights Rodrigo Neves.

In Chile, President Piñera has promised to overcome extreme poverty. So has Mr. Calderon in Mexico, where Oportunidades, the nation’s conditional cash program, has helped millions of Mexicans. In most countries, leaders have promised to expand upon social programs to help the poor.

Politicians are responding, in part, to demands from voters. A case and point is the recent Peruvian elections, where left-leaning Ollanta Humala won the race with support from disenfranchised Peruvians who have been left behind, despite Peru's economy being the fastest-growing in Latin America. He says he wants to expand his nation's conditional cash program called Juntos, meaning "together" in Spanish.

In the beginning of the decade, candidates across the nation railed against inequality. The rhetoric came strongest from the left, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has diverted billions into social programs for the poor. But it has evolved into a promise by the entire political spectrum: support for the poor while maintaining macroeconomic stability, the kind of governance hailed in Brazil and which Mr. Ollanta sought to model himself after.

Social programs have their critics

Some critics claim that the social programs of today are not long-term answers to achieving equality. They require that today's generation of children attend school, but the quality of the education is questionable in the most marginalized areas where social programs are concentrated.

But Brazilian economist Tiago Berriel of the Rio-based Getúlio Vargas Foundation argues that even so, the social programs provide a valuable safety net.

"The degree of poverty we're talking about is people who aren't able to eat," says Mr. Berriel. "So with the country getting richer, it is probable that we are able to eliminate extreme poverty and still have a very high level of inequality [between the rich and poor]."

Christopher Sabatini, editor-in-chief of the policy journal Americas Quarterly in New York, which is published by the Council of the Americas, says that as nations get richer, they need to start improving the quality of social services – such as health-care insurance or pensions – overall, and not just targeted, cash-based programs that are individualistic.

“People are still in very fragile socioeconomic positions,” he says. “There needs to be a more broad-based social safety net.”

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