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.”
The main Brazilian meal is lunch, which the children eat free at school. When they’re home, their parents often eat chicken (a whole one goes for $5 and can last several meals) or salami (about a dollar a pound) cooked with inexpensive vegetables they pick up at the market and which occupy a drawer in their largely empty, ancient refrigerator.
Fruit is a luxury. Alves da Silva’s favorite, watermelon, goes for just over $2 at a nearby market. “If I could, I’d buy one every Sunday,” she said.
Other household expenses include a canister of cooking gas ($16), one of the first things the family buys when they receive their monthly payment. If it runs out before the month is out, they switch to a tiny wood-burning stove.
Household necessities like detergent, soap, toothpaste run about $20 a month. Clothing comes from hand-me-downs and the numerous nearby stores advertising “Items 5 Reais and Up,” though most cost precisely five reais ($2.75). That makes budgeting a breeze even for Alves da Silva, who only made it to second grade. She quickly reels off the math: six kids, 10 reais per outfit, 60 reais ($33) to dress the family, shoes not included.
In all, the family makes things work on a monthly income that includes the $70 from Bolsa Familia and about $50 to $100 from informal, temporary or odd jobs.
Until recently, Alves da Silva held a somewhat regular — if sub-minimum wage — job, making $65 a month for working four days a week as a housekeeper and babysitter. But she lost that job after she burned herself with an iron (at her home) and took a month to recover. Dos Santos has dispersed CVs to local chain stores and supermarkets, but has had no luck. (Since he has only a fourth-grade education — and no computer, of course — he paid $1 to have a basic resume created for him at the local shop.)
Often, jobs come from luck. As Dos Santos walked into the center of Tabuleiro on a recent evening, he ran into a bakery owner he knows named Adriano.
“Hey man, can you stop by the bakery tomorrow?” said Adriano.
“Sure,” responded Dos Santos.
And voila, a day’s work that would net him $11 to $14. His wife currently has been working a twice-a-week housekeeping gig, which nets her $8 to $11 a day up to twice a week.
The state helps out with health care and medication, free — if not stellar — at the local clinic. And though Dos Santos claims life in the city is “every man for himself,” friends and family do help out: Dos Santos gets around on bicycle that was a gift from his mother, who lives nearby. And Alves da Silva goes the gym every night at 7 p.m., the $13 a month membership paid for by her close friend, Janicleide’s godmother.
For special occasions, the family relies on creativity and sacrifice. Alves da Silva saved up for three months to host a birthday party for Janiquele, Janicleide and Janiela, all born in April. It cost her more than $50 for the ingredients to make a cake, gifts for the kids, soda and beer for the adults. On some days “we had to go without some kind of food,” she said, “but it had to be done.”
The kids have been known to be especially creative. When Mother’s Day rolled around this year, the oldest sons commandeered the two wheelbarrows the family owns and created an ad hoc delivery service at the nearest supermarket. They stopped only when they had made enough for six gifts: one for each child to give.
Upon request, the youngest, Janiquele, scurried off to bring the gifts in from the kitchen. They were essentially Tupperware, some with tops that resembled fruit. Several were still in festively colored tissue paper.
“It’s simple,” Alves da Silva said, “but it’s from the heart.”