Bolsa Familia: Brazil's silent revolution

Brazil is bridging the gap between rich and poor with a social program which may prove to be one of its most valuable exports to the rest of the world.

Throughout the country there are those who live tucked away in plush homes behind thick, barbed wire-topped walls and those who live within shanty cinder block ones.

“Brazil is a rich country but the majority is poor,” said Silvio Caccia Bava, the General Director of the Instituto Pólis.

Guarded gates pave the road to the majority, separating rich from poor and cementing the vast divide of inequality that in many ways is the story of Latin America.

But in this developing nation, in one of the fastest growing major economies in the world, where they are pioneering deep water oil research and ethanol production for example, there are signs of human development, too. Marked by a before and after

Before outgoing President Lula da Silva took office, “the people didn’t recognize the poor. And "today the rich are angry with Lula because the poor aren’t as poor as they were before, people have opportunity,” said one of the president’s supporters.

"He’s increased the job market, civil construction for me and for others, he’s giving jobs to people who didn’t have them," said another supporter.

After Lula’s eight years in office, there exists a Brazil where more than 20 million of the vast poor have been lifted out of poverty, where jobs and social policies are bringing inequality down. Income for the poorest in the country has grown eight per cent a year, while for the richest it has grown only one-and-a-half per cent.

Brazil follows a trend in Latin America of countries electing leftist governments who are essentially redistributing wealth to the poor. In Brazil, it is being done through a program called Bolsa Familia.

Janaina Ferreira de Andreade and her two daughters live together in one shared room, about 100 square feet, in a favela or slum. She gets by on a few odd jobs and she gets the equivalent of US$24 per month from the government, through Bolsa Familia. It may not sound like much, but it makes a difference for the extreme poor who live on less than $75 a month.

“It helps with food, or sometimes I use it to pay a bill," said Ferreira de Andreade.

In return for Bolsa Familia cash, she has to show the government that her daughter Samantha gets her vaccinations and is in school, attending at least 85 per cent of the time.

As a result:

“She’s ten years old and she knows how to read how to write and everything she even knows how to use the computer," Ferreira de Andreade explained.

Samantha’s life is one of learning and opportunity. Where once in such a slum, reaching her age meant dropping out of school to work and help the family.

"I worked when i was younger," said Marie Jose da Silva, a woman who grew up in the favela and didn't have the same opportunity. "At ten years old I was already a nanny. I didn’t have the means to study. I couldn’t. Either I studied or I worked to help the family."

But a little of the government’s cash is helping to break that cycle and create a new one.

“I want them to study a lot so in the future they will have a profession and they’re not going to suffer like their parents suffered," a Bolsa Familia recipient told us of what she wants for her two daughters. "I want them to study.”

They are studying to transform Brazil’s mostly poor and illiterate majority into an educated workforce, to better their lives and the upward mobility of the country.

At the same time, the parents are suffering less. Bolsa Familia is responsible for one-sixth of the reduction in Brazil’s poverty, while it costs just a half-per cent of GDP. Basically, it is considered both cheap and efficient.

“Yeah, it’s been a success Bolsa Familia,” said Bava.

It has been so successful that it is a model being transferred globally, from Mexico to New York City. Though by some accounts, it still amounts to chump change in some ways.

"You need to face that if they reach five dollars daily it will not be a solution for their lives,” admitted Bava.

But in the favelas, you can witness firsthand how it has helped Brazilians see beyond their cinder block cities; where football playing fantasies are turning into goals of being doctors and teachers. And where their skills can one day help fuel the growth of a country on the rise in the world, where they are exporting not only goods but their social policies, too. And where for the first time, arguably, in its history, the walls separating rich from poor do not look so set in stone.

Michael Fox, an author, freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Brazil, said the Bolsa Familia was an amazing program. He argued it creates empowerment and participation by getting the people involved.

“You often don’t see this type of program, like Bolsa Familia, whereby people have to be thinking about the future. You have to have the kids in school; you have to be focusing on actually doing something in order to receive these funds from the government. It’s called conditional cash transfer,” said Fox. “It helps put people back on their feet.”

Since the program is tagged to education and looking to the future success of individuals, it is less likely people will remain in poverty and become dependent on the welfare program.

“It’s all about breaking the chains of poverty so people can work their way out,” he added.

The program is considered a great success, in fact opposing political candidates and parties are campaigning on maintaining and expanding the program to see it flourish even further.

Similar programs are now spreading across Latin America and have even been piloted in New York City. 

Watch the full interview with Michael Fox