The Government Programme Bolsa-Familia or Family Allowance has already been extremely successful in removing more than 45 million people from poverty in Brazil. According to the private Centre of Statistics, Getulio Vargas Foundation (Fundação Getulio Vargas), between 2002 and 2006 poverty in Brazil was reduced by 27%. This successful government programme helps to keep millions of children in school and has reduced child labour drastically in Brazil. However despite the success, there is still some criticism of the Family Allowance programme.
Poor supervision, a lack of incentives for those enrolled in the programme to look for work, and potential for fraud are the main concerns of those critical of the Family Allowance programme. Some believe that the huge size of Brazil alone makes it difficult to properly check those families benefiting, and that it is open to widespread fraud. Some also feel that beneficiaries have no incentive to be retrained and acquire new skills in order to be able to find a job, or to work at all, since with the programme the government will provide for them regardless.
While some of these concerns may have a basis, it does not diminish the importance of the watershed social inclusion programme. Even if some people enrolled in the Family Allowance programme, abuse or depend exclusively on the programme to survive, there is no doubt that their offspring can have a better chance in life than their parents because of the programme.
Previous generations of under privileged classes had very low expectations in life, even lower chances of going to school and were forced to work at an earlier age to help their families. This has contributed to cementing social inequality and increasing the socio-economic gaps that exist in Brazil. The Gini Index, which measures the distribution of family income, places the South American giant in 10th place behind Haiti and some African countries.
According to statistics, 4.8 million children between 5 and 17 years old are currently working in order to help to provide for their family, and 1.2 million of those are aged between 5 and 13 years old. The Family Allowance programme was initially created as School Allowance assistance, exclusively intended to prevent children from entering the workforce at such an early age.
In 1994, local government in the south of Brazil created the School Allowance programme with the intention of keeping children in school. Due to its popularity, the same programme was introduced the following year in the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, and in 2001 President Fernando Henrique Cardoso went national with the School Allowance initiative. Since then the programme has been reshaped and expanded by his successor, Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva, to accommodate more people. This eventually led to the Family Allowance programme, which has become a controversial issue among some politicians.
There are both positive and negative consequences of the social programme. One can argue that while the Family Allowance has little effect in the great centres of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro or Brasilia due to the high cost of living, in the countryside and especially in poor regions of the north and northeast of the country, this financial assistance is absolutely vital to families. In these regions this new wave of money has benefited the local economy in small towns and allowed families to have access, for the first time in their lives, to kitchen appliances, electronic goods, and even beds.
Statistics show that homes benefiting from the Family Allowance have lower figures of marriage breakdowns, with a reduction between 2% and 11% of mothers being left alone with their children. While other statistics link children who have been raised by a single parent with criminality in Brazil, it is still too early to tell if the Family Allowance will contribute to reductions in this area.
The programme has enormous potential to empower the most vulnerable and help to raise families from poverty, but it may lack the tools to help those benefiting to achieve financial independence. Time will tell what the real impact this programme is having on the lives of poor families.
Written by Chrystian Schadler for ChildFund Ireland (2013)