Is Brazil’s Bolsa Família in jeopardy?

. Jan 18, 2018
Bolsa Família Brazil Lula president 2018 election Bolsa Família lifted millions from extreme poverty. Photo: Alina Souza/FP

When he was elected to the presidency in 2002, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said that he would make sure that by the end of his tenure, each Brazilian would be able to eat three meals every day. At the time, studies showed that nearly 28 percent of the Brazilian population lived below the poverty line – meaning that over one-quarter of Brazilians lived on less than $1.90 per day.

His first initiative was called Fome Zero (Zero Hunger), coordinated by the agronomist and scholar José Graziano da Silva – the incumbent Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization. It was initially conceived as a refund program – the government would publish a list of food products that lower-income Brazilians could purchase, and then be refunded for. Food distribution centers would be created, as well as restaurants at affordable prices.

</p> <p>Under <em>Fome Zero</em>, some 30 subprograms were operating, and most were disconnected from one another. The desired actions included the construction of food silos in the impoverished northeast, the creation of seed banks, community daycare centers, seminars for nutrition education, and credit lines for the purchase of food. It was a bold – but highly bureaucratic – program.</p> <p><em>Fome Zero</em>, however, was an utter failure. Its lack of clear goals, miscommunication between the numerous institutions involved in its implementation, and the fact that it caused price distortions due to the government’s demand for food were among the leading causes of its demise.</p> <h3>The Bolsa Família turnaround</h3> <p>In 2003, the Lula administration was still committed to its focus on poorer Brazilians. And to implement his next program, he used a policy created by libertarians. The goal was to unify several social programs and avoid side effects such as price distortions. This new policy, which became known as <em>Bolsa Família</em>, was crafted by the liberal economists Ricardo Paes de Barros, Marcos Lisboa, and Joaquim Levy (who later served as Finance Minister).</p> <p>Instead of giving food to its beneficiaries, the new program instead gave them money and freedom to choose how they would spend it. Households receive stipends based on per-head income, under the condition that children go to school and receive their vaccines. In reality, <em>Bolsa Família</em> was a formalized accumulation of several of the previous administration’s most successful social policies – but together, it did the trick.</p> <p>It was considered by the World Bank as &#8220;Brazil&#8217;s quiet revolution,&#8221; responsible for substantially reducing the <a href="">levels of absolute poverty</a> in Brazil. According to Brazil&#8217;s Institute for Applied Economic Research, every Brazilian Real spent on <em>Bolsa Família </em>generates BRL 1.78 for the economy.</p> <h3>Electoral strategy</h3> <p>Yet House Speaker Rodrigo Maia has not bought into the initiative: &#8220;It creates dependency on the government. A good social program gives the tools people need to get a job on their own,&#8221; he said. During his roadshow through the U.S. East coast, Maia said that the <em>Bolsa Família</em> program &#8220;turns people into slaves.&#8221;</p> <p>Maia has been progressively open about his desire to run for the presidency. He even said this week that should he reach 7 percent of voting intentions, his name will be on the ballot. His remarks about <em>Bolsa Família </em>seem like a strategy to pander to big business and to market himself as the most viable right-wing candidate, standing in opposition to the wildcard personality of far-right Jair Bolsonaro.</p> <p>What’s curious about Maia’s denunciation of <em>Bolsa Família</em> is his failure to criticize the government’s numerous debt renegotiation programs for companies. In 2017, fiscal benefits for corporations amounted to BRL 400 billion – that’s more than the entire healthcare budget. But for Maia, this apparently doesn’t create a dependence on the government as does <em>Bolsa Família</em>.</p> <p>Until as recently as 2014, <em>Bolsa Família </em>was a &#8220;sacred cow&#8221; in political conversations. Even politicians that criticized the program during its early days also praised the initiative. Not even Michel Temer’s administration, notable for its servility towards big business, has supported its end. Of course, that position has also been strategic to avoid the loss of votes, since millions of voters depend on the program. But Maia&#8217;s blunt censure of <em>Bolsa Família </em>is a sign of the times.

The Brazilian Report

We are an in-depth content platform about Brazil, made by Brazilians and destined to foreign audiences.

Our content is protected by copyright. Want to republish The Brazilian Report? Email us at