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.