Ten years on, Brazil′s Bolsa Familia still going strong | Globalization | DW | 20.11.2013
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Ten years on, Brazil's Bolsa Familia still going strong

Bolsa Familia has been described as the largest social welfare program in the world. Some 50 million people - or 26 percent of Brazil's population - receive payments. The program has been widely praised. It has also been criticized for encouraging people to lounge about instead of holding down a job.

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Bolsa Familia awards poor families a monthly cash payment on the condition that children are sent to school and vaccinated. It was introduced to combat extreme poverty by reducing hunger and malnutrition.

The scheme recently celebrated 10 years in service and is consistently praised for helping to reduce Brazil’s vast levels of inequality as well as driving recent impressive economic growth.

The conditional cash transfer concept of Bolsa Familia was devised in the early 1990s and then introduced across Brazil in 2003 by then President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Such is the success of the program that the question of who was the original inventor is contested across the political spectrum.

Bolsa Familia pays out 10 to 100 euros ($14 to $140) a month depending on family earnings and the number of dependents. The subsidies are only paid to women. Empowerment of women has long been cited by the UN as key for poor children to grow up healthy.

According to the International Social Security Association (ISSA) - the world's leading social security body, Bolsa Familia is the largest program of its kind in the world. Today it reaches 13.8 million families, or 50 million people, around 26 percent of Brazil's population.

Government statistics say that Bolsa Familia has lifted 36 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty, which the Brazilian government calls those who live on less than 70 real a month - or 23 euros.

The scheme has been most successful in Brazil's arid North-east, where more than half of the receiving families live. Much lauded by the World Bank, other governments, in India and Africa in particular, are looking into adopting similar schemes.

However, Bolsa Familia is a distant third reason for Brazil's drop in poverty, which has been driven mainly by large increases in the minimum wage and the pensions being locked to that minimum wage.

According to the Brazil Institute of Applied Economic Research, Bolsa Familia is not able to lift anyone above the poverty line unless at least one family member is connected to the labor market.

Like any social welfare program, Bolsa Familia attracts criticism for allegedly creating a culture of dependence that discourages claimants to find work. However, a World Bank study found that this was not the case. Instead, the study said, working adults who claimed Bolsa Familia were inclined to take greater risks and work even harder, in the knowledge that the subsidies gave them a safety net.