Brazil’s Social Welfare Problem with Bolsa Familia

Brazil‘s conditional cash transfer (CCT) program Bolsa Familia has been hailed by the international community, and even used as a model for other countries, throughout Latin America and beyond. Former president Lula da Silva is credited with spearheading the anti-poverty initiative. Under the terms of the program, poor families receive debit cards with modest monthly payments in exchange for ensuring school attendance and vaccinations for their children.

The payments are intended to be enough to lift the family above the poverty level, and are generally paid directly to the mother. The program has 50 million Brazilians, or one quarter of the country’s population, enrolled, and has proved largely popular. Politicians on both the left and right support it, but the program also has its detractors.

Bolsa Familia was designed to specifically benefit children, as a counterpart to social insurance programs that already existed to benefit the sick, the elderly, and the unemployed, but critics on both the left and right see problems with the program.

Those on the right argue that it provides disincentives to find work, while critics on the left argue that it entrenches a permanent underclass and leaves Brazil’s socio-economic inequality and status quo in place, without addressing the root causes of such inequality. Many academics on the left argue for a more robust social welfare state, akin to the Western European or Scandinavian model.

There are other problems with Bolsa Familia, as well. The Workers Party, known as PT locally, has wielded the program as a political tool, turning it into a form of vote-buying. With the cash transfers, they greatly expanded the popularity of their party, turning a new generation of low income Brazilians into PT supporters. But this would appear to be another case of the government “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Studies have found that the program disproportionately benefits rural poor over urban poor, and benefits northern Brazilians over southern. For example, great poverty exists in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, but only 10% of the families there are enrolled in Bolsa Familia.

As Brazil now grapples with a serious fiscal crisis, it remains to be seen if the government will be able to continue with the CCT program, or will be forced to pare back spending.

Subscribe free to our daily newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special reports delivered directly to your inbox.
You can unsubscribe at any time