Bolsa Família grinds to a halt under Jair Bolsonaro

. Mar 12, 2020
Bolsa Família grinds to a halt under Jair Bolsonaro Photo: Daniel Wiedemann/Shutterstock

During the 2018 election campaign, rumors spread on social media claiming that if he were made president, Jair Bolsonaro intended to scrap Bolsa Família—Brazil’s world-renowned welfare cash-transfer program. This is a standard tactic from the left, but the chance of the initiative being canceled is always remote: Bolsa Família is popular, it works, and it is cheap.

However, after one year of Jair Bolsonaro in office, Bolsa Família is going through its most uncertain period since its creation in 2004. Budgetary constraints have seen new claimants left on a waiting list that now includes over 1.5 million families. The burden of caring for these needy citizens is falling on local governments, which themselves are cash-strapped. Small municipalities have reported cases of poor families knocking on the doors of council buildings, requesting food and basic necessities.


is a far cry from the public narrative after Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s election. The far-right president <a href="">promised to expand Bolsa Família</a>, introducing a Christmas bonus, overhauling the benefit&#8217;s requirements, and even changing its name to &#8220;Bolsa Brasil&#8221;—as a way of putting his stamp on a <a href="">program indelibly identified with the center-left Workers&#8217; Party</a>, President Bolsonaro&#8217;s political enemies.&nbsp;</p> <p>These initiatives were seen as a ploy to ingratiate Jair Bolsonaro to the population in Brazil&#8217;s Northeast, which is the country&#8217;s poorest region and where the president performed the worst in the 2018 election.</p> <h2>Government slams the door shut</h2> <p>However, public records have shown that Bolsa Família has <a href=",novo-bolsa-familia-vira-queda-de-braco-entre-governo-e-congresso,70003216918">essentially been frozen since June</a> of last year. According to data gathered by website <em>Núcleo</em>, between the election of Jair Bolsonaro in October 2018 and November 2019, there were 7.3 percent fewer families enrolled in the cash transfer program. Throughout last year, almost 1.2 million families were cut from the program.</p> <p>The numbers of Bolsa Família have always fluctuated from month to month, ever since its creation. When beneficiaries begin to receive more income and rise above the program&#8217;s threshold—or if families do not keep their registration information up to date—they are removed from the list to receive monthly payments. However, there are always new beneficiaries joining the program.</p> <p>In the first half of last year, an average of 220,000 new families were enrolled in Bolsa Família every month, which is in line with demand since the program&#8217;s inception. However, in June, only 2,500 families were approved to receive the benefit; monthly totals have not risen above 10,000 a month since then, which is unprecedented in Bolsa Família&#8217;s history.</p> <h2>The regional imbalance of Bolsa Família</h2> <p>Ironically, with the waiting list for families to receive Bolsa Família benefits climbing constantly, the region of Brazil that has been overlooked the most is precisely the poor Northeast, where Jair Bolsonaro had hoped to use the cash transfer program to gain support.</p> <p>Newspaper <em>Estadão</em> found that of the 1.5 million families in the Bolsa Família queue at the time of publication, 606,835 hailed from the Northeast. However, among the new benefits granted in January, only 3 percent of recipients were northeastern families.&nbsp;</p> <p>Experienced Senator Tasso Jereissati—who is seen as an important ally for the Bolsonaro government—used his Twitter account to show his dismay at this <a href="">regional imbalance</a>, summoning the Citizenship Ministry to come before the Senate and explain the results. Mr. Jereissati, who hails from the northeastern city of Fortaleza, claimed the issues could cause politicians from the region to cut ties with the federal government.</p> <p>Other political problems are in sight too, as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (<a href="">OECD</a>) has repeatedly suggested Brazil increase its investments in the program and make it available to a wider range of families. One of the major goals of the Bolsonaro government is to gain entry to the group, and this could be a stain on the country&#8217;s efforts.</p> <h2>Things can always get worse</h2> <p>Beyond the delicate situation of the Bolsa Família program, there is no indication that it will improve any time soon. The budget for payments in 2020 was set at BRL 30 billion—12 percent less than last year.</p> <p>If the government continues to allow the waiting list to grow and maintains its current average monthly payment—which is around BRL 191.77 per family—Bolsa Família will <em>still</em> have to cut the benefits of over 350,000 families in order to not go over its budget.</p> <p>Newspaper <em>Folha de S. Paulo</em> revealed that the Bolsonaro government was made aware of this lack of funds as early as February of last year, around the same time the president promised to expand the program. The Citizenship Ministry—which oversees the functioning of Bolsa Família—requested extra funds at least five times over 2019, each plea being rejected by Economy Minister Paulo Guedes and the government&#8217;s other budget decision-makers.

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Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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