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The mean streets of Complexo da Mare, a favela in north Rio, where the Bolsa Familia provides social aid to poor families. (Lianne Milton for The Globe and Mail)
The mean streets of Complexo da Mare, a favela in north Rio, where the Bolsa Familia provides social aid to poor families. (Lianne Milton for The Globe and Mail)

What would Robin Hood do: How cash handouts are remaking lives in Brazil Add to ...

To enroll, a family has to fill out an exhaustive questionnaire – What is the floor of your house made of? What do you eat? How do you cook it (coal, charcoal, electricity?) – and are assigned a social worker. The grant lands in the bank account of the designated women in each family each month; she has a government-issue debit card to withdraw it. Today, 50 million Brazilians receive the grant – one quarter of the population.

The price tag, however, is astonishingly modest: just 0.46 per cent of GDP, for a total of $11.5-billion this year. (This means that, despite the slowdown in Brazil’s economy, the program isn’t threatened.) Overhead is kept to a minimum – there is no food to move around, as there was in previous nutrition programs that were meant to deliver needy families ration packs, and which were vulnerable to immense amounts of corruption.

And once the national registry was in place, there wasn’t much infrastructure to worry about. The grant isn’t a lot of money, but it is a guaranteed amount, so it allows people to make plans, and sometimes to save – two luxuries the poor never had relying on uncertain work and surviving day-by-day. It taught a new level of financial literacy, Ms. Campello says, to people who had never before had any prospect of regular income to budget with.

She calls it an investment. “These millions of people who get the Bolsa Familia are people who are spending here in Brazil. This money multiplies the GDP. We want them as consumers, as part of the country. And as workers. Brazil needs these workers. So we are not doing this just for social assistance. We are doing this because we believe it’s good for the country.”

The program has critics, especially in the middle and upper classes. They deride it – on television chat shows, in cafe conversations – as handouts that will “make people lazy” and give them licence not to seek work.

“The general public continues not to like to give money to poor people,” says Sonia Rocha, an economist with the Institute for the Study of the Labour Market and Society, who has evaluated the impact from the outset. “People don’t think it’s effective despite the evidence.”

In fact, 75 per cent of adult recipients work, and most of those who don’t are in areas that lack employment prospects. Ms. Campello loves this statistic. “Fifty per cent of the people who get the Bolsa Familia don’t work. That’s true. You know why? Because they’re under 14 -- we don’t want them to work! Half of the extremely poor people in this country are children!”

Ultimately, the great bulk of population supports the program – and the Workers’ Party government. Mr. Da Silva’s hand-picked successor as president, Dilma Rousseff, champions the Bolsa Familia as enthusiastically as he did and is talking it up ahead of her bid for re-election next year.

And indeed, Dr. Rocha noted, even if a new conservative government were elected, it would not be able to cut the program, such is its popularity.

Still, some of those who study the Bolsa Familia say it is getting more credit than is entirely fair. Lena Lavinas, a professor of economics at the Federal Universal of Rio de Janeiro who has evaluated many aspects of the program, argues that much of what the government attributes to the family grant likely would have happened without it. Brazil’s economy took off at the start of the last decade, posting growth rates of eight and nine per cent a year. That growth created 21 million new jobs from 2001-2012.

The Lula government also pushed a steady increase in the minimum wage – Mr. Da Silva rose to power through the country’s trade unions and never left his base far behind. Minimum wage, which 17 per cent of Brazilians earn, has risen 72 per cent in real terms since 2002.

Brazil’s poorest people are landless farmers, but agricultural industries have undergone the fastest industrialization, creating a vast demand for semi-skilled labour. Urbanization, meanwhile, has been rapid, and there were new jobs and better health-care and education in the cities. And while all of this was happening, Prof. Lavinas notes, Brazil was experiencing the tail end of a major demographic shift. Fertility has declined from an average of 6.8 children per woman in 1960 to 1.8 children today.

“Everything converged to make the Bolsa Familia appear like a miracle,” she says. “It’s not.” The poverty line is “ridiculously low,” she adds – many of those who now count as no longer poor are still living on the economic margins. And children are in school, but school, teacher and student performance remain abysmal.

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