By Jonathan Power
If worst comes to worst, with Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff deposed and her predecessor, Luiz “Lula” da Silva, discredited, they will long be remembered for the Bolsa Família. This is a government program that has cut Brazil’s once appalling poverty rate by half and reduced the number of poor very sharply to 3 percent of the population. It reaches 55 million people; 36 million have been lifted out of poverty. It has been such a winner that around sixty countries have sent their experts to study it. Indeed, it has been so successful politically that we shouldn’t be surprised that if Rousseff is felled by the shenanigans of Congress, masses will go out on the street and riot.
Before the Bolsa Família program was put into effect by Silva, Brazil had many welfare and food subsidy programs. Like in most developing countries, the benefits didn’t reach the poor in the way that was intended. Middlemen, black marketeers, corrupt officials, and politicians skimmed and diverted much of them.
Bolsa Família absorbed these into one direct cash payment. A poor mother of a family−women were more trusted than men−received an electronic card which she could slip into a bank cash dispenser and immediately get her monthly allowance, often doubling her cash income. There would be no intermediaries, no skims, and no scams.
There were some conditions. Her children had to go to school, be immunized, and have regular health checkups. She herself, if pregnant again, had to go to the maternity clinic. So not only were incomes being raised above the poverty line, but infant and maternal mortality rates fell fast.
The income of the poorest 20 percent of Brazilians rose by 6.2 percent between 2002 and 2013, while that of the country’s richest 20 percent rose by only 2.6 percent. (In the U.S. during the same time period, the income of the richest 10 percent rose by 2.6 percent and that of the poorest 10 percent shrank by 8.6 percent.)
Inoculations reached 99 percent of the population. Deaths from malnutrition fell by 58 percent. Longevity steadily increased. Literacy became almost universal, and education gave young people a better chance in life. The number of children forced to work instead of attending school dropped by 14 percent.
I’ve been out to the villages in the Northeast and seen with my own eyes the visible and dramatic improvements. I’ve been visiting the village of Pilõezinhos for 40 years, and now I’ve seen things that were never there before−a school, a pharmacist, and an agricultural advisor. In homes I found flush toilets, refrigerators, and washing machines−this was the kind of thing Bolsa Família recipients wanted to spend their money on, as well as medicine and education.
Bolsa Família met with a lot of stiff resistance at its onset. Some economists argued that the government should be investing in infrastructure. Conservatives warned about the dangers of welfare dependency. “The opposition said we were going to create an army of lazy people,” Silva told Jonathan Tepperman of Foreign Affairs.
Later, opponents had something of a field day when it was revealed that the sanctions for noncompliance by recipients were not being properly enforced. Too rapid expansion had meant, for example, that 55 percent of schools were not reporting if they had met their attendance quotas. Silva responded by setting up a new ministry to centralize oversight of Bolsa Família and he made sure it was staffed with experts. Some half million ineligible recipients were cut from its rolls.
It was to the good. Bolsa Família became popular across the political spectrum. It helps that the program is so cheap. By the standards of the middle class, the payments are tiny. The average family gets only $65 a month. It costs Brazil less than half a percent of the country’s $2.3 trillion national income.
Brazil used to have the worst income distribution in the world, bar South Africa. Now, the country’s overall income gap has been reduced by one-third. Yet its popularity extends far outside those it is meant to help. Recent polls put its approval rating at around 75 percent.
Needless to say, a good deal of this progress was made possible by the rapid economic growth that was made in Silva's time. Now, with the sharp drop in commodity prices, notably affecting exports to China, combined with poor economic decision-making, the economy has crashed. Unemployment is rising. Although Rousseff has expanded the reach of Bolsa Família the number of poor is probably rising since unemployment is increasing by the day.
While she remains in power, the commitment to extend and improve the reach of Bolsa Família will remain intact. If she is deposed, anti-poverty programs will no longer be a priority. This alone is a good enough reason to make sure she is not impeached.
Jonathan Power is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Day.
[Photo courtesy of Senado Federal]