bolsa_familia_4Brazil’s social policies under President Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva, in office from 2003 to 2008, lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty and at the heart of this process is his family grant scheme (the Bolsa Família). The programme arouses huge enthusiasm among policy-makers and beneficiaries, but has it really reduced inequality and improved the educational outcomes of the poorest children?

The World Bank is unequivocal, though it is an interested party, because it helped to design the programme and funds it: ‘Can social policies go beyond assistance and become active tools of social and economic transformation? Brazil is showing us that they can.’ And a recent Financial Times article referred to ‘Brazil’s Bolsa Família, a welfare programme that pays poor families for sending their children to school, is renowned in development circles as one of the biggest and most effective programmes for poverty reduction in the world.’

So what is this programme? It is what is technically called a ‘conditional cash transfer programme’. According to Brazil’s social development ministry, the programme supports 13 million families with a per capita income of less than R$70 (US$34) a month with a payment – usually to the mother – of between R$32 (US$16) and R$306 (US$150), depending on family income, the number of children and their age and whether the mother is pregnant or nursing. It is conditional on the children attending school, being vaccinated, and links the family into various other support programmes. The Lula government, with the advice of the World Bank, launched this integrated programme in 2003, but it goes back to local initiatives in at least 1995, and Lula’s predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, introduced a school grant programme. Cardoso, as finance minister, was the author of the 1994 economic stability programme linked to a new currency, the real, and the continuation of conservative economic policies under Lula did much to encourage the economic growth of the last 10 years that has increased employment and made poverty reduction possible.

The early versions of the programme aroused great interest, and Mexico sent researchers to Brazil in the late 1990s before starting a similar programme.

bolsa_familia_1Beneficiaries talk of having their lives changed by the programme. Typical of the testimonies is this reported by the World Bank from a mother in a favela near Brasília, Dinalva Pereira de Moura: ‘The programme has been a marvellous thing for me and my family. I have three children and my husband is unemployed. The Bolsa Família helps me buy food. Sometimes I can even buy fruit for the children. My children know that when we receive the money, they will have more to eat, and that makes them happier. And they don’t skip school, because they know that the money depends on their going.’ A phrase that recurs in beneficiaries’ descriptions is ‘dignity’. of its own. According to the World Bank, something like 20 other countries have started or are developing programmes modelled on Brazil’s.

What this testimony makes clear is that the programme really is reaching the very poor, and the support it provides is at the level of ensuring that a family has an adequate diet. But it goes far beyond a simple cash grant. One of the keys to its success is the integration of various lines of support, including training and loans to set up a small business in areas such as hairdressing or dressmaking. Under Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, the programme forms part of an umbrella anti-poverty programme, ‘Brazil without extreme poverty’, which increases the links to other support programmes. The programme is also is extremely economical, costing 0.5% of Brazil’s GDP, and provides a stimulus to the economy much greater than the initial outlay. This brings is support from quarters not normally keen on social spending. The Financial Times article mentioned above quoted a Brazilian banker as saying: ‘With nearly 100 per cent of 15- to 16-year-olds attending school thanks to the Bolsa Família, this is investment in human capital. It creates a middle-class. This is where the productivity will come from, and where the consumer demand will come from.’

But to claim that this programme by itself has pulled millions out of poverty is open to question. The World Bank itself notes other factors: ‘Key drivers of this have been low inflation, consistent economic growth, well-focused social programs, and a policy of real increases for the minimum wage.’ In fact, crucial to reducing poverty and income inequality was the Lula government’s policy of increasing the minimum wage at an average of 5.8% a year, above inflation and above the growth in the economy; it stands today at R$622 (US$305) per month or R$2.83 (US$1.17) an hour.

bolsa_familia_2The specifically educational achievements of the Bolsa Família are less clear. The results of the 2010 sample census show that the percentage of young people aged 7-14 not in school fell from 5.5% to 3.1%, which represents progress, but not a dramatic transformation. The greatest increases in attendance were in pre-school education and in the 15-17 age range. More serious are questions about the quality of state education in Brazil. In the PISA international comparison of educational achievement Brazil’s ranking is 54 out of 65 countries, compared with 20 for the UK, though PISA describes this as representing ‘impressive gains from a very low level’. Serious efforts are being made to improve state education: the proportion of GDP Brazil spends on education (5.7%), is higher than in most of the other rapidly growing economies known as BRICS (China 3.3%, Russia and India 4.1%, South Africa 6.1%), and slightly higher than in Britain (5.6%), and set to rise to 7%. On the other hand, it was only in 2009 that Brazil decided to increase the period of compulsory education from ages 6-14 to ages 4-17. There is also the problem that responsibility for schools is divided between the federal government and Brazil’s 27 states and 5,500 municipalities, and the financial resources vary considerably from the rich South-East to the much poorer North-East and North, so much so that nine states, catering for a third of Brazil’s pupils, are unable to find the funds to cover the legal minimum spending per pupil, and require additional support from the federal government.

These public policies, however, operate in a social and cultural context that is highly unfavourable to equality of opportunity in education. Brazil remains one of the world’s most unequal societies. While income inequality has been reduced in recent years, wealth inequality, the ownership of assets, especially land, remains highly unequal. This is reflected in the disparity of spending between state education and the private sector, which caters for 18% of the school population. Where the state of Rio Janeiro, a relatively generous funder of education, pays R$3,500 (US$1,715) a year per pupil, parents of pupils in private schools will pay R$12,000-R$24,000 (US$6,000-12,000) in fees, allowing for much higher levels of staff qualifications and quality of premises and equipment.

bolsa_familia_3In a survey of ‘the 50 best schools in São Paulo’, by the news magazine Veja, all the schools listed are private, just over half of them Catholic – all state schools in Brazil are secular. The magazine summed up the advantages of these schools as follows: ‘In addition to the high academic level of the teachers, they have a range of parallel activities in arts and sports. They use a variety of techniques to assess both students and teachers and keep to a reasonable limit of pupils per class, which allows for personalised support. Finally, they offer laboratories, sports grounds and gymnasia, computers, libraries and other equipment and facilities that allow the staff to reach maximum efficiency.’ It is a different world from the state sector, and helps to explain why the proportion of student

In addition, as the government economic institute, IPEA, commented in its latest report on education policy, Brazil still bears ‘the legacy of the agricultural exporting and slave-owning past’. A dramatic sign of this comes in the illiteracy statistics. While the overall percentage of illiteracy in Brazil in 2009 was 9.7%, and roughly equal between men and women, the percentage among whites was 5.7%, but among Afro-Brazilians it was 13.9%. There are some disadvantages that cash transfers alone cannot overcome.The proportion of students from the state sector reaching one of São Paulo’s top universities, USP, is only 28%.


*An edited version of this article appeared in The Tablet. The photos, by Manuel Romário Saldanha Neto, show conditions in a state school in a poor district of Recife, where the Bolsa Família is important.