Bolsa Família is the answer to Covid-19. But Bolsonaro has slashed it

. Apr 01, 2020
Bolsa Família is the answer to Covid-19. But Bolsonaro has slashed it Elderly woman in Belo Horizonte. Photo: Luis War/Shutterstock

In one of his now numerous rants against social isolation as a key tactic to contain the spread of Covid-19, President Jair Bolsonaro told a true-crime show host this week that “unfortunately, some deaths will occur … so be it, it happens, and we’ll move on.” He continued by saying that the fight against the disease — by forcing the country into a recession as people go on self-isolation — will end up being more damaging than the coronavirus itself.

Staunchly against quarantines issued by state governors, Mr. Bolsonaro has said on a daily basis that “Brazilians want to go back to work,” and that “Brazil cannot stop.” This echoes a similar campaign launched last month in Milan, Italy — proved wrong after 9,000 Covid-19 deaths.

The president does have a point

in worrying about the economy. Brazil&#8217;s industrial activity has been on a continuous slowdown and unemployment rates remain in the double digits, growing from 11.2 to 11.6 percent of the workforce between November and February. So plunging into a recession from such a low baseline is bound to create a daunting scenario.</p> <p>But a group of economists at Brazil&#8217;s Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea) believe that the way out of an economic collapse is not to expose citizens to a deadly virus. Instead, the government should look no further than its biggest social program for the solution. Signed by researchers Luís Henrique Paiva, Pedro Ferreira de Souza, Letícia Bartholo, and Sergei Soares, the document urges the federal government to expand the Bolsa Família cash transfer program as much as possible. Here are their recommendations:</p> <ul><li>Register all families on the Bolsa Família waiting list, currently estimated at 1.7 million;</li><li>Postpone registration review processes;</li><li>Readjust criteria that give access to the welfare program;</li><li>Pay an emergency benefit of BRL 450 for the next six months for all these families.</li></ul> <p>The study shows that these measures would lead to a BRL 68.6 billion bump in social welfare spending in 2020. However, the study highlights that 80 percent of this additional cost would be with transitional measures, with a reduced impact on the 2021 budget.</p> <p>&#8220;We understand the fiscal restrictions that plague the Brazilian federal administration, but, given the likelihood of catastrophic developments from a social point of view, our recommendation inevitably tends towards the most generous scenarios. After all, in a worst-case scenario, even if social risks are overestimated, the additional expense would be almost all temporary and would not reach 1.5 percent of GDP — which would be less than the annual deficit of the social security system,&#8221; economist Sergei Soares told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <h2>Bolsa Família has been cut to the bone</h2> <p>Earlier this month, editor Euan Marshall exposed how <a href="">Bolsa Família has been reduced</a> in the first year of the Jair Bolsonaro administration. Data-based <a href="">analysis</a> by news website <em>Núcleo</em>, a partner organization of <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, shows that the number of families enrolled in the program is down 1.2 percent — or 218,000 — in March from February. This was the ninth month of overall reduction in the space of a year. When compared to March 2019, current data shows that the flagship cash-transfer program has cut 7.6 percent of its beneficiaries — or 702,000 families.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/1753725" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/1753829" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p>In every month since its creation, thousands of families have been &#8220;cut&#8221; from Bolsa Família, either due to increasing their income over the cutoff limits, or by failing to update their registrations. The problem in recent months is that new families are no longer being brought into the program.</p> <p>As the in-person economy is put to a halt, peripheral populations in Brazil will need instant revenue more than ever.</p> <p>It is important to add that social isolation measures in Brazil against Covid-19 only started midway through March — and any swift, last-minute change, of course, would not be easily done. However, the repeated drops in the number of enrolled families — the only increases happened in April and May 2019, as well as January 2020 — show a continuous shrinking of the program, as a byproduct of Economy Minister Paulo Guedes&#8217; austerity-driven agenda.

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Brenno Grillo

Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

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