Connect to share and comment

Brazil: evaluating anti-poverty program

How does a family of eight live on government checks for $70 a week?

MACEIO, Brazil — On a typical night, Janaina Alves da Silva and Jose Cicero dos Santos serve their six school-age children a dinner of cuscuz, a traditional corn porridge from the Brazilian northeast, along with fried eggs and coffee to wash it down. All told, the meal costs about three reais, the equivalent of $1.70.

Not bad for a family of eight, but for a household whose only stable income is Brazil’s “Bolsa Familia,” or “Family Stipend” program, the $50 a month they spend on dinner eats up most of the $70 they get from the government to survive.

Bolsa Familia, which reaches more than 12.5 million families across Brazil, has been the signature anti-poverty effort of the Lula administration, which expanded it greatly. Payments, which are tied (at least theoretically) to school attendance, have arguably done more to reduce severe poverty in Brazil than any previous program. The effort has garnered worldwide praise.

Though most Brazilians accept the general concept of the program — no candidate in the current presidential race would dare threaten it — there are bitter debates about its execution and scope, and criticisms of government mismanagement and misuse by families.

Another common criticism is that families decide to live on the payments alone, withdrawing from the labor market. But after spending a day with Dos Santos and Alves da Silva, who spoke openly about their expenditures and budgeting, that seems unlikely. Just to survive, they scramble for part-time work and use their own ingenuity.

They are just one family, of course, but a recent study from the International Policy Center for Inclusive Growth concluded that Bolsa Familia does slightly reduce work incentives, but not so much as to create dependency. (The center is jointly run by the United Nations Development Program and the Brazilian government.)

The couple is from the 25,000-person town of Boca da Mata, and while living there had six children in seven years: Jefferson, now 13; Jackson, 12; Janiele, 11; Janicleide, 10; Jonas, 7; and Janiquele, 6. Dos Santos supported the family with a minimum wage job in a sugar cane plant.

Circumstances surrounding a marital split and later reconciliation forced Dos Santos to quit his job and move the family to Maceio, the million-person state capital of Alagoas. After four years in this city of gorgeous beaches, deep-blue lagoons, crushing poverty and a skyrocketing murder rate, he has not yet found a steady job. “There things are bad, here they are even worse” he said. “At least in the countryside, it was better because there was work every day.”

The family’s home is perched precariously in a “grota”, as Maceio’s illegal settlements on the slopes of river banks are known. Getting there requires steady balance down improvised steps and across an old door that bridges a mini-ravine near the house’s entrance. The house itself, though, is surprisingly solid, paid for by the $2,700 Dos Santos received under Brazil’s worker-friendly labor laws when he quit the cane plant.

But that money is long gone, and times are tough. In addition to the $50 a month on dinner, there’s about $12 a month on breakfast — bread and butter on good days, cuscuz again on bad. “They say, ‘Mommy, I don’t want to eat this, I want to eat something else,’” said Alves da Silva. “Janiquele is finicky, she loves ramen. We have it sometimes, but not always.”