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.
"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.
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.
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.
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."