Brazil: Sacrificing Anti-Poverty Success?

By Hayley Jones*

Bolsa Familia

Photo Credit: Senado Federal / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s flagship antipoverty program, the Bolsa Família, faces an uncertain future as the government of Interim President Michel Temer confronts adverse economic and political circumstances.  The program, which provides direct cash benefits to poor households on the condition that children fulfill education and health-related targets, was an important factor in Brazil’s progress on poverty and inequality since the early 2000s – between 2001 and 2013 the poverty headcount ratio declined from 24.7 percent to 8.9 percent, and the Gini coefficient declined from 59.3 to 52.9.  The Bolsa Família (formerly called Bolsa Escola) was a pioneer in the use of cash transfers in social policy in the 1990s.  The idea is enticingly simple: the cash allows families to meet immediate needs, while the education and health conditions ensure poor children are better equipped to lift themselves out of poverty in the long run.  Under Presidents Lula and Dilma, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) put the policy at the heart of its platform, and reaped advantages at the polls with the expansion of coverage and benefits.  The program now reaches about one-quarter of the population.

The social gains made in part thanks to the Bolsa Família may now be at risk.  Brazil has been hit hard by the collapse of commodity and oil prices over the last two years and is currently experiencing what is predicted to be the country’s worst recession since the 1930s.  GDP fell by roughly 4 percent in 2015 and is expected to do the same in 2016.  The deep political crisis gripping the country since earlier this year further threatens the program.  Temer, his party (PMDB), and Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles have stressed the need to cut spending to reduce the deficit.  While many areas of social spending, such as pensions and education, are protected in the budget under the 1988 Constitution,  the Bolsa Família is not.  With the large political constituency benefitting from the program, there is likely little appetite in the interim government to ax the program altogether.  In fact, at the end of June Temer announced a 12.5 percent increase to the Bolsa Família – more than the 9 percent promised by Dilma – to compensate for inflation.  But he also emphasized that benefits should be temporary and that there is a need to focus on exit doors from the program.  Social Development Minister, Osmar Terra, has suggested that the program could be made more efficient and costs cut by 10 percent.

Temer may not be entirely wrong to highlight the need for exit strategies, but they should be exit strategies from poverty rather than from the Bolsa Família itself.  There is so far little evidence that it has done much to change the life trajectories of poor young people that would allow them to move out of poverty. The emphasis on increased school enrollment and attendance as transformative obscures much deeper problems, including poor school progression and completion rates in low-quality schools, a lack of educational infrastructure and resources, poorly trained teachers, and outdated curricula, among others.  If Temer is serious about moving beneficiaries out of poverty and the program, priority will have to be given to correcting regressive spending in public education (which prioritizes higher over basic education); better aligning curricula with labor market demand; and addressing the poor job opportunities for low- and semi-skilled workers. Economic realities and the rhetoric on efficiency and exit strategies do not bode well for such changes.  Under Temer, the Bolsa Família seems likely be limited to a policy tool for risk insurance and meeting basic needs rather than a platform for extending the social gains of the last decade.

July 12, 2016

*Hayley Jones is a DPhil (PhD) Candidate in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.  Her thesis examines long-term poverty reduction in the Bolsa Família program.

Brazil: Implications of Dilma’s Victory

By Eric Hershberg and Matthew Taylor

Sala de Imprensa / Flickr /  CC BY-NC 2.0

Sala de Imprensa / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

President Dilma Rousseff’s reelection – by a tight 3.28 percent of the vote – sets the stage for a period of challenges and political uncertainty.  The Social Democratic Party (PSDB) candidate, former governor Aécio Neves, was truly a formidable contender, and Dilma and the Worker Party (PT) showed new weaknesses.  The battle was marked by a strong desire for change – even Dilma’s campaign slogan was “Governo Novo, Ideias Novas” (New Government, New Ideas) – and the big question now is what sort of change will come from the PT’s fourth consecutive turn in office.

  • Dilma lost overwhelmingly in the Worker Party’s (PT) old stomping grounds of the southeast (by 2-1 margins), but picked up support in Neves’s state of Minas Gerais and thoroughly dominated the northeast (by 3-1 margins in many places), including Pernambuco, which had gone to Marina Silva in the first round.
  • The lower middle class, known widely as Classe C, ultimately appears to have thrown its lot to Dilma – apparently driven by the PT’s relentless message that only it could be trusted to protect their interests and social programs like the Bolsa Família.
  • The PT emerges from the battle bloody and bruised. The Rousseff campaign’s systematic deconstruction of Marina Silva in the first round buys the resentment of a solid fifth of the electorate.  Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was an uneven participant in the campaign, inexplicably absent at critical moments and losing his cool at others.
  • The PT won 19 of 27 governorships, and Dilma’s alliance did well in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, but the opposition is likely to be far more assertive, as the combined issues of the economy, public services and corruption proved during the campaign to be useful wedges to drive between the middle class and the PT. A newly combative and forceful Aécio will be the clear leader of the opposition.

Dilma faces formidable challenges.  The economy was moribund for almost all of her first term, and fairly urgent work is needed to cope with a deteriorating current account, the weak fiscal results, resurgent inflation, and declining personal credit, especially among the politically influential Classe C.  Management of public services – theoretically manager Dilma’s strong suit – needs attention, and she actually has little hope of driving meaningful change singlehandedly.  The corruption story, moreover, is an immediate threat.  If the testimony of foreign exchange dealer Alberto Yousseff, who was given whistleblower protection in exchange for testifying to the police, is to be believed, this is an enormous scandal that may shake the administration to its core.  In light of this political scenario, it is perhaps not surprising that Dilma’s victory speech focused on building consensus, suggesting she would push political reform via plebiscite, promising anti-corruption reforms, and suggesting, after largely downplaying the issue on the campaign trail, that inflation and fiscal balance will be key priorities during her second term.  Whether she can actually accomplish these goals on her own timetable is a big question.

October 27, 2014

Elections in Brazil: The Force of the Latin American Left

By Eric Hershberg and Luciano Melo

Aécio Neves – Senador & World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Aécio Neves – Senador & World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

The first round of Brazil’s presidential election has set the stage for a runoff playing primarily to class differences.  By the eve of the election, polls hinted at the real possibility that the center-right candidate Aécio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) would edge out the other principal opposition contender, former Minister of the Environment Marina Silva.  Silva enjoyed a spike in the polls after she replaced the late Eduardo Campos, who perished in a plane accident in August, as the Brazilian Social Party (PSB) candidate.  Sunday’s results confirmed Silva’s decline, as she captured only 21.3 percent of the votes compared to 33.5 percent for the PSDB and 41.6% for incumbent President Dilma Roussef of the Worker’s Party (PT).  The PT used its potent propaganda machine to portray Silva as a potentially dangerous candidate – an indecisive leader who could not be trusted to sustain popular social programs such as the Bolsa Familia conditional cash transfer program, which has helped lift millions of Brazilians out of poverty.  Also, Aécio and Rousseff built their images upon two iconic ex-Presidents – the former on Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) – seen by the middle and upper classes as the leader who managed to defeat hyperinflation and putting Brazil on track for economic growth – and the latter on Lula, Rousseff’s mentor, who is idolized among the most disadvantaged parts of Brazilian society as the President who helped the poor become less poor.

To win the runoff on October 26, Aécio needs at least 70 percent of Silva’s votes – she has only hinted at supporting him – while Rousseff would succeed with only half of that.  It is clear that Dilma and the PT will double down on their negative advertisements, now aiming at Aécio rather than Marina.  The PT’s barrage over the airwaves will highlight the risks of abandoning the course set out by Lula and followed by Rousseff.  Voters will be told that the opposition may underfund cash transfers, privatize the state oil company Petrobrás or treat it as a profit-making enterprise rather than as a development bank, thus increasing unemployment as occurred during the Cardoso years.  And the PT will no doubt remind voters of its consistent efforts to boost minimum wages and chip away at the vast inequalities that had long characterized Brazil.  Surely they will portray Neves as an elitist out of touch with the majority that has benefited from the PT’s redistributionist agenda.  Aécio and the PSDB, by contrast, will highlight the worrisome slowdown in growth under Rousseff, the failure to significantly improve public services – it was frustration over health, education and, particularly, urban transportation that drove the social protests that began in mid-2013 – and the over-regulated and over-taxed economy.  Most of all, Neves’ campaign will harp on the persistent scandals that have bedeviled the PT over the past decade and that have helped to fuel popular disdain for politicians.

The election results in Brazil are likely to become increasingly polarized in terms of class.  Dilma appears poised to prevail in the poorest states of North and Northeast, where Bolsa Familia and other cash transfer programs, subsidies, wage increases and Lula’s image are compelling.  In turn, Aécio should come out ahead in the richer states such as São Paulo, which offer the largest pool of voters and where highly educated and middle- and upper-income Brazilians are concentrated.  We make divergent predictions: Hershberg anticipates a PT victory, since for all the speculation about the travails of the Latin American left, it has built very substantial foundations of support in societies that credit the left with finally making some advances to tackle Latin America’s yawning inequalities.  Warnings that Aécio represents a return to elite rule will resonate among the PT’s electoral base, and the PT’s success will be nourished by its powerful organizational capabilities.  Melo, by contrast, anticipates a PSDB triumph.  In this scenario, the corruption, disappointing growth rates over the past two years as the commodity boom has slowed, and widespread frustration about the quality of public services will generate an anti-incumbent dynamic that will bring to an end a dozen years of PT rule.

October 10, 2014

Brazil: Is Marina Silva the PT’s Nemesis?

By Luciano Melo

MarinaSilva

Photo courtesy of the Marina Silva campaign website

No politician in recent years has been able to shake and polarize Brazilian politics as Marina Silva has since becoming the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) presidential candidate after its original nominee, Eduardo Campos, died in a plane crash last month. She has an alluring biography: born into an extremely poor family and illiterate until she was 16, she worked as a rubber tapper and rose to become one of the most prominent ecologists and defenders of the Amazon region alongside Chico Mendes, a true Brazilian hero. After earning a degree in history, Silva entered politics in the mid-1980s. Several years later she received the most votes as a state representative for Acre, served twice as a senator, and later became the Minister of Environment in Lula’s administration (a position from which she resigned due to fundamental divergences with the Workers Party and Dilma Rousseff). In 2007 she won the UN’s Champions of the World award, and three years later she ran for President under the Green Party banner, amassing 20 million votes on a platform emphasizing environmental issues and education.

Recent polls find roughly a third of Brazilian voters favoring Silva in the first round of balloting scheduled for October 5, and running even with or slightly ahead of President Rousseff in an anticipated run-off election three weeks later. The Brazilian media suggest that a large part of Silva’s appeal comes from a personal aura of transparency and rectitude – a refreshing change from others competing for Brazil’s top job. She has also demonstrated an old-fashioned ability to compromise in order to form alliances. A committed environmentalist, Silva teamed up with Eduardo Campos, a titan of agribusiness, and now, heading up the PSB ticket, her running mate is Beto Albuquerque, a moderate farmer who can bring a certain level of balance in the economic-environmental equation. On the separation of church and state, however, Marina may face a difficult balancing act. She is an evangelical Christian, winning a large chunk of religious voters in 2010, and she has defended the teaching of creationism in schools, saying that God created even Darwin. She rolled out an agenda for advancing LGBT rights recently, but criticism by Pastor Silas Malafaia, one of Brazil’s main evangelical leaders, forced her to reverse course and abandon her position 24 hours after having presented it.

Although Brazil is a religious country, laïcité – a French version of secularism – is a serious matter for the upper and middle classes, and Silva’s religiosity may cost her votes. She has exposed her core weak spot, which the other candidates will exploit in the upcoming debates and electoral campaigns. But popular concerns about corruption run much deeper in the eyes of the Brazilian people. The fact that presidents Dilma and Lula and the PT have become synonymous with misconduct in general, and mismanagement regarding Petrobrás in particular – a scandal involving 40 PT members in a multi-million real scheme – weakens their ability to counterattack amidst Silva’s continuous rise. What we will see in the elections in October is therefore a battle between the PT’s Bolsa Família – one of the most successful social programs in the history of Brazil – and a candidate who theoretically embodies honesty and honor. Whatever the outcome, it seems that PT has met its biggest challenge in 12 years.