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Brazilians Have A Civic Role In Keeping the “Bolsa Familia” Program


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By Marina Lafer, MPA Candidate at SIPA, Columbia University

In 2004, belonging to a social and economic environment in which people were constantly raising doubts over the efficacy of Lula’s policies as Brazil’s President, I remember myself having a bad – unsupported – impression over Bolsa Familia, a program that aims to provide small cash transfers[1] to extremely poor families, conditioned to keep their children in school and take them to preventive health check-ups[2]. At the time of its creation, I was only fourteen years old and had the conception that it was not addressing the poverty issue. Additionally, I believed that the amount of money spent on the program was too great and by compromising that investment with one policy, the Government left many public problems unattended.

By being skeptical about the long-term outcomes of the Bolsa Familia Program and by disagreeing with its continuity, groups in the Brazilian society create an echo for their discontent and actually weaken the program toward civil society and the international arena[3]. Moreover, given the scarce economic situation that Brazil faces nowadays, this rationing could actually weaken and impair the Government’s investments for the improvement and expansion of the program. A new, more conservative, President in office would also be responsible for this trend: many people picture a more “efficient” state when public investments in social policy are spent elsewhere.

Even though I was negatively biased from the beginning, I am glad to acknowledge that my thoughts toward the program have changed; in fact, the numbers do not lie. There is a misconception of the program as being the main responsible for the Union’s total expenditure, especially in matters of welfare benefits. However, Bolsa Familia corresponds to 2.8% of the Union’s total expenditure[4]. For comparison matters, public pension payments correspond to 15.9%[5].

For some economists, Bolsa Familia is not an expensive program[6]: its expenditures count for about 0.5% of Brazil’s GDP and reaches more than 80 million people[7]. Every R$ 1.00 (US$$ 0.33) spent with the Program mobilizes R$ 2.40 (US$ 0.80) of its beneficiaries income and adds R$ 1.78 (US$ 0.59) to the national GDP[8].

The Program, different from what the “contraries” “think”, does incentivize people to become or continue economically active. In fact, more than 75% of its beneficiaries do not settle with the cash transfer[9]. This percentage is the same found among the population that does not receive the benefit. In fact, President Temer, as opposed to the rumors in the media, announced in the end of last year a 12.5% increase in the value of the transfers after its lack of monetary correction in the last two years[10]. Under his jurisdiction, the Ministry of Social Development canceled 469 thousand cash transfers that were paid for people who were no longer suitable. Adding these cancellations to the 654 thousand cash transfers that were frozen for a suitability analysis, these numbers represent 8% of the entire number of cash transfers[11].

It is extremely important for the middle and high classes in Brazil to have a broader understanding about poverty and the mechanisms the government can provide to give the poor and extremely poor the opportunity of reaching out of the chronic, intergenerational poverty. I was not able to acknowledge then that, regardless of the proponent’s political ideology, a public program could be meaningful and have a positive, measurable impact.

As the program evolves in this new Government Administration, there will be enough time for teenagers and – why not? – adults to leave their biases aside and analyze the impact of our country’s policies to improve social and economic standards, based on reliable evidences and technical evaluations.


[1] In 2013, the families enrolled in Bolsa Família Program received, on average, $ 47.50 dollars per month. Campello, T. & Neri, M., 2013 “Programa Bolsa Família: 10 anos de inclusão social.” Available at: http://www.ipea.gov.br/portal/images/stories/PDFs/livros/livros/livro_bolsafamilia_10anos.pdf

[2] According to the Ministry of Social Development, the eligible families for Bolsa Família Program or have a monthly per capita income up to $53,12 dollars. Available at: https://mds.gov.br/assuntos/bolsa-familia/o-que-e/como-funciona/como-funciona

[3] In the beginning of the program, several political parties were against the Bolsa Família, such as parts of PSDB, whose some members called the program as “beggar grants”. Even nowadays, extreme right wing politicians in Brazil often criticize Bolsa Família. Congressman, Jair Bolsonaro publicly affirmed that “Bolsa Familia is a crime”. Available at:http://www.psdb.org.br/bolsa-esmola/; http://www.psdb.org.br/bolsa-familia-recebe-criticas-de-especialista/; http://www.psdb.org.br/da-renda-minima-a-bolsa-esmola/; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jJqtZ1iIAg

[4] Campello, T. & Neri, M., 2013 “Programa Bolsa Família: 10 anos de inclusão social.” Available at: http://www.ipea.gov.br/portal/images/stories/PDFs/livros/livros/livro_bolsafamilia_10anos.pdf

[5] Folha De S. Paulo. “Boyhood Bolsa Família – Dez Anos Depois.” Famílias Melhoram De Vida, Mas Ainda Dependem De Programas Sociais, July 12, 2015. Accessed November 22, 2016. http://temas.folha.uol.com.br/boyhood-bolsa-familia/dez-anos-depois/familias-melhoraram-de-vida-mas-ainda-dependem-de-programas-sociais.shtml.

[6] Leopoldo, Ricardo. “Bolsa Família é Um Programa Barato, Diz Ministra.” EXAME.com – Negócios, Economia, Tecnologia E Carreira, March 18, 2013. Accessed November 22, 2016. Available at: http://exame.abril.com.br/brasil/bolsa-familia-e-um-programa-barato-diz-ministra/.

[7] Information from September 2016. Source: Reports of Social Information, Ministry of Social Development. Accessed November 19 2016. Available at: http://aplicacoes.mds.gov.br/sagi/RIv3/geral/relatorio.php#Vis%C3%A3o%20Geral%20Brasil.

[8] Valor OnLine. “Ipea: Cada R$ 1 Gasto Com Bolsa Família Adiciona R$ 1,78 Ao PIB.” G1 Economia. October 15, 2013. Accessed November 25, 2016. Available at: http://g1.globo.com/economia/noticia/2013/10/ipea-cada-r-1-gasto-com-bolsa-familia-adiciona-r-178-ao pib.html.

[9] Folha De S. Paulo. “Boyhood Bolsa Família – Dez Anos Depois.” Famílias Melhoram De Vida, Mas Ainda Dependem De Programas Sociais, July 12, 2015. Accessed November 22, 2016. Available at: http://temas.folha.uol.com.br/boyhood-bolsa-familia/dez-anos-depois/familias-melhoraram-de-vida-mas-ainda-dependem-de-programas-sociais.shtml.

[10] BBC – UOL Notícias. “O Que Mudou Com Temer Nos Programas Sociais Como o Bolsa Família”. November 17, 2016. Accessed November 25, 2016. Available at: http://noticias.uol.com.br/ultimas-noticias/bbc/2016/11/17/o-que-mudou-com-temer-nos-programas-sociais-como-o-bolsa-familia.htm.

[11] Ibid 9.