Can cash hand-outs cure poverty?

Vanessa Martina Silva considers the track record of Brazil’s flagship Bolsa Família, the world’s largest conditional cash transfer scheme.

Daiana Borges says she gained dignity after she started to sell her products: ‘Before, I could not look people in the eye.’ Credit: Vanessa Martina Silva

Daiana Borges shudders when she recalls her family’s days of hunger. She is 37 and has 4 children; she married young. As a black woman living in a poor neighbourhood, her prospects weren’t promising and she started her working life as a cleaner. Disaster struck seven years ago when both she and her husband became unemployed. Two years of hunger and dependency on the help of relatives followed – made especially hard because their children were still small. ‘We had absolutely nothing,’ she recalls. ‘We couldn’t find work, not even a temporary position, nothing.’

For her, the turning point came via the Bolsa Família (Family Allowance) programme, a helping hand from the state: a regular, small strings-attached cash transfer. The pioneering programme has divided critics – praised to the skies for tackling extreme poverty and also criticized for going nowhere near far enough.

Money transfers

Three centuries of slavery has left Brazil one of the most stubbornly unequal countries in the world, where the richest one per cent of people hold half of all wealth.

Bolsa Família was implemented in 2003 during the first government of then-President Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party. The debate around it at the time can be summarized by the popular adage: ‘Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day, teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.’ Detractors said that by transferring money to poor families, the government would discourage them from seeking work, leading to a mass of contented people living off the state. Proponents said the transfers would help people to eventually become self-sufficient.

Between 2002 and 2013, the number of undernourished Brazilians fell by 82 per cent

Bolsa Família unified three pre-existing social welfare programmes that had been implemented under the previous government: Bolsa Escola (for schooling), Bolsa Alimentação (for food) and Auxílio-Gás (a gas subsidy). The total amount paid out increased under Bolsa Família and a single, universal register was created for all social programmes, which were co-ordinated by the Ministry of Social Development and the Fight Against Hunger (MDS).

According to former Minister Patrus Ananias, who led the Ministry from 2004-10, the programme achieved its main goal: to turn Brazil from red to green on the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Hunger Map. This happened in 2014. Between 2002 and 2013, the number of undernourished Brazilians fell by 82 per cent.

Ananias explains that Bolsa Família went beyond just the cash payments and also came to include ‘various food-security policies such as community kitchens, food banks and support for family-run farms’.

He argues that the Ministry ‘worked with state and municipal governments in a completely non-partisan way’, being careful to avoid the manipulation of the programme for electoral gain.

Despite the huge scope of the scheme and the achievement in terms of hunger reduction, one of the main criticisms of Bolsa Família is that it brings people only just above subsistence level. To qualify, families have to be categorized as either ‘extremely poor’ (earning up to $22 per capita, per month) or ‘poor’ (up to $44), and must include pregnant or nursing women, children or adolescents. The maximum amount of money paid is $49 per month – a fifth of Brazil’s minimum wage of $249. To stay on the programme, families must send children to school and comply with some preventive health measures such as vaccinations, and check-ups for under sevens and pregnant mothers.

Ananias thinks that conditions like these should not be a one-way street: ‘While the state can have these requirements, poor families and communities can also demand quality education and [better] health policies,’ he says.

Under the current government of rightwing president Jair Bolsonaro, 13.8 million families are enrolled, receiving, on average, monthly payments of $47. The scheme costs the state $7.4 billion annually – 0.4 per cent of GDP.

According to former minister Ananias, the modest monetary boost provided by the programme establishes ‘a decent survival baseline’. But in order for families to truly leave poverty behind a number of supplementary policies are required. Commitment from local governments can make all the difference.

Social incubator

Daiana Borges and her four children are now living in Franco da Rocha, 40 kilometres north of São Paulo, the most populous city in Brazil. It is a dormitory town, with many of its 154,000 residents commuting to the big city every day to work. Nearly 40 per cent of residents here earn less than half the minimum wage and only 12 per cent are in formal employment. As of November 2019, 13,204 families received Bolsa Família. But Daiana Borges’s family was not one of them.

She spent two years receiving Bolsa Família payments from the federal government before enrolling on various skills-training courses offered by the municipal administration, one of the conditions for receiving payments.

Borges learned sewing and artisanal baking, and discovered a love of cooking. She joined a ‘social incubator’ project and today makes a living selling Mexican food from a stall in the city’s main park, among other sites.

‘My stall is incredibly popular. It’s been really great,’ she says. ‘When I started to get a stable income, my Bolsa Família was cut. We have managed to buy a car, it is fully paid off, we have no debt!’ She is overcome by emotion as she describes her dramatic change of fortune.

The city’s Director of Social Protection, Luciane Mosca, explains that one reason why such turnarounds can be achieved is that the Bolsa Família benefits are paid out to the woman of the household. ‘It’s important that Bolsa Família ensures that this is the case,’ she says. ‘It’s women who can measure and organize things: it’s women who can really emancipate the family.’ Women also suffer poverty most keenly, receiving lower wages and devoting much of their time to unpaid domestic labour.

Franco da Rocha’s social incubator programme includes training in sectors such as food, beauty, sewing, arts and crafts, and artisanal drinks. Social assistance ensures people’s participation throughout and helps with management of business ventures, providing support so that projects can become independent.

For the world to witness: weary and homeless, this woman rests by a busy thoroughfare in São Paulo. Davidsonluna/Unsplash

Dismantling welfare

It’s a model many other local governments are keen to emulate. But these types of initiatives are being undermined by the current Bolsonaro administration, which has a neoliberal agenda to cut social programmes. The government plans to cease Bolsa Familia benefits to 600,000 families; it has yet to reveal the criteria by which the cuts will be made. Laura Tavares, a retired lecturer in public policy and social inequality, affiliated with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), believes that Bolsa Família is being gradually dismantled together with ‘all other social welfare policies’.

During the 2018 presidential campaign none of the candidates dared criticize this popular programme. Bolsonaro even promised to expand it, incorporating a 13th-month payment at the end of the year. This did happen in 2019, but the increase is not budgeted for in 2020.

The country’s economy is in crisis and employment growth is sluggish. Tavares points out that ‘extreme poverty is on the rise again. People who received Bolsa Família and worked informally find that there is more competition in the informal market nowadays. This creates enormous instability.’

Tavares also highlights a historic weakness: while the resources allocated by the programme might have had a significant impact on rural communities and very poor regions, it has been a different story in urban areas. ‘The amounts were insufficient in cities like Rio de Janeiro, where informal work such as looking after people’s cars, selling drugs or prostitution can bring far more money than Bolsa Família can. The benefit hardly covers the needs of a single young person.’

An initial step

Given the current government’s onslaught against social programmes, MPs are trying to ensure that Bolsa Família becomes a constitutional right by introducing a bill to that effect. However, there is no set date for a final vote on the proposed legislation.

Former minister Patrus Ananias remembers that the programme was conceived with the vision of ‘building a social welfare state’. For him, ‘the right to food is an initial step towards exercising rights and duties’. He returns to the fishing adage, which he adapts: ‘If a person does not eat fish beforehand, they will not be able to fish. You can only fish on a full stomach.’

When asked what she would say to those who criticize Bolsa Família, Daiana Borges alights on the same aphorism: ‘I am very grateful. People should see it is there to help, as a support. It’s like the saying goes: it teaches people how to fish. At least that’s how it was here in Franco da Rocha.’

Vanessa Martina Silva is a journalist based in São Paulo. She is an editor of the Diálogos do Sul website and a Masters student in Latin American studies.

Translated by Julia Felmanas.