RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – As Brazil chooses its new president on Oct. 31, the nation barely resembles the country Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva inherited when he took office in January 2003.
At the time, 20.9 million Brazilians – 11.9% of the population – lived in abject poverty, meaning they had household incomes equivalent to one-fourth of the monthly minimum wage (R$60 at the time). Only slightly more than 34% of families owned washing machines, and the highest-level of education for Brazilians at least 10 years old averaged only 6.5 years.
The number of people living in dire poverty has dropped to 12.3 million, which means 6.5% of the population make ends meet with R$144.25 (US$84,85) monthly. In 44.8% of homes, clothes now get washed by machines, and Brazilians spend more time in school, an average of 7.2 years.
The most recent statistics were gathered by the Home Based National Survey (PNAD-2009) and by the Household Expenditure Survey (POF-2009). Both studies are conducted periodically by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).
They show the results of a broad range of socio-economic policies implemented by Lula’s administration, from income redistribution programs, such as the Bolsa Família, to the raising of the minimum wage.
Brazil, in each of the past two years, was chosen by the NGO ActionAid as the worldwide leader in fight against hunger and poverty.
In its report “Who’s really fighting hunger?” released in September and using 2009 data, ActionAid documented the many initiatives undertaken throughout the world to eradicate hunger.
Eight out of the 28 developing countries in the report were deemed capable of attaining one of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals: to cut extreme poverty and hunger in half by 2015.
But there’s more: about 1.2 million children worldwide may die due to chronic malnutrition by 2015, according to the report.
But Brazil is one of the few exceptions, a feat which the report credits mainly to three factors: having the legal right to food added to the Constitution earlier this year; the Family Agricultural Program (PAA), in which the government purchases small farmers’ harvests to provide free lunch in public schools; and finally, the success of the Bolsa Família program.
“Family farms are not competitive like agribusiness, but they’re very important to the supply of the internal market,” says Maurício Santoro, a political science teacher at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV). “Most items on the so-called ‘basket of basics’ are harvested by small producers. So the PAA was set up in order to turn government food purchases into public policy.”
The PAA was conceived in the context of Fome Zero, a program launched by the federal government in 2003 to eradicate hunger, including more than 30 plans of action.
During the past seven years, Fome Zero spent close to R$2.7 billion (US$1.58 billion) to buy 2.6 billion tons of food distributed to more than 2,300 municipalities.
Fome Zero is limited, says ActionAid
Fome Zero’s reach is limited, according to Rosana Heringer, ActionAid’s executive director in Brazil.
she says. “In China, which was ranked second in our report, the biggest advances in reducing hunger and poverty came precisely as a result of larger investments in agriculture.”
Bolsa Família, a key component of Fome Zero’s success, was created by joining four income redistribution programs. The fusion resulted in improvements for 12.7 million families – 51% of which reside in Brazil’s northeast, the country’s poorest area.
Each qualifying family receives between R$22 (US$12.94) to R$200 (US$117.64) monthly, depending on the number of children and on total income, which cannot exceed R$140 (US$82.35) per month.
The funding comes from the federal budget, which this year earmarked R$13.1 billion for the program (US$7.7 billion), well exceeding the R$3.2 billion (US$1.88) distributed in 2003.
The program falls under the Ministry of Social Development and Fight Against Hunger, created by Lula’s administration. But it’s at the municipal level that the money is made available to beneficiaries.
For a family to qualify for the program, its children between 6 and 17 years old must be enrolled in school, pregnant women must get prenatal care, and children up to six years of age must receive periodic medical evaluations.
“This broad social safety net is one of the biggest achievements of the Bolsa Família,” Heringer says.
It also highlights the difference between Brazil’s strategies to combat hunger and those of other Latin American countries, such as ninth-ranked Guatemala, the only other one in the region to be included in ActionAid’s report.
With access not only to food, but to health and schooling, the generation receiving help from Bolsa Família should be able to break out of the poverty cycle that trapped its parents, says the FGV’s Santoro.
The program is so successful that the Brazilian government has signed cooperation agreements to share its experience and insight with 27 countries, including Ghana and Peru.
The little money making a huge difference
Jandira Mascarenhas Cotias used the monthly R$112 (US$65) from the Bolsa Família to build a wooden shack after her previous house – made of paperboard – was destroyed by a torrent that hit her poor community in Salvador, in the northern state of Bahia.
The new home, where the 48-year-old artisan lives with two of her three children, has a bedroom, a bathroom, a living room and a kitchen – all separated by sheets hanging from the ceiling.
Cotias also purchased a refrigerator, a stove, a TV and a computer, which she has to keep at her sister’s house, since the shack doesn’t have enough electrical power to run it.
“The computer is a heritage of Lula, as we bought it with the money from Bolsa Família,” she says. “My children use it for school work, even without Internet. As soon as we pay its last monthly installment, we are going to connect [to the Internet].”
In Bahia, 79% of the households don’t have computers, and among those who own one, just 17.1% have Internet access, according to IBGE.
“If I earn R$300 [US$175] with handicraft work, I use the program’s R$112 [US$65] to give my children what I couldn’t give before,” she says.
Mascarenhas makes less than a minimum wage (US$ 297) in a state where the total average household expenses equal R$1,993.23 (US$1,162.91), according to IBGE.
But she perceives more “stability” in her life and dreams of two things: a brick house and a job for her daughter, no matter if this means running the risk of losing Bolsa Família’s benefits due to a rise in the family income.
Cármen Aparecida Sacramento, 43, Cotias’ neighbor, spends the R$123 (US$71.76) she receives from the government to provide her three daughters with notebooks, shoes and school uniforms.
“For a person who didn’t receive anything this makes the difference,” Sacramento says. “Every day I ask God that the change of president this year doesn’t put an end to the program.”
Bolsa Família has its critics.
But the negativity stems from not understanding the role of the government in promoting social welfare, says Rômulo Paes de Sousa, executive secretary for the Ministry of Social Development and Fight Against Hunger.
he says. “And an essential component of this protection is making sure they have an income that allows access to food and other essential items.”
Middle class also has enlarged
Besides its initiatives to fight poverty and hunger, Lula’s administration took measures to allow other segments of the population to better themselves.
The minimum wage more than doubled (from R$200 in 2002 to R$510 in 2010), unemployment fell to historic lows, and inflation was controlled.
One of the results was the expansion of the so-called C class, who report monthly incomes between R$1,126 (US$662.35) and R$4,854 (US$2855).
In 2009 Brazil’s C class comprised more than half of the population (50.5%) for the first time in history: 94.9 million out of 184.4 million, according to findings by the FGV’s Center for Social Policy released in September.
The growth trends for C class became noticeable in 2003, when the group represented merely 37.5% of the population, says economist Marcelo Neri, who headed the study.
From 2003 to 2009, 29 million moved up a notch and made it to C class.
The study also revealed that C class holds 46.24% of Brazilians’ purchasing power, surpassing A and B classes, which comprise 44.12%.
Neri says Bolsa Família isn’t behind the phenomenon, since the program is focused on the E class (up to R$705 or US$414.7 monthly income).
The growth of a new middle class mostly is due to the expansion of jobs and educational levels.
Military police officer Alci da Cunha Rosa, 45, is among those who have ascended to a higher position in the socio-economic pyramid. In his home, in Rio de Janeiro’s Madureira neighborhood, he has a computer, a DVD player and cable TV.
But he and his wife Maria da Conceição, a 42-year-old elementary school teacher, don’t own a microwave because “it’s superfluous.”
All their goods are the result of hard work and sweat – and a few zeros added to their paychecks.
Rosa was promoted to 1st. Sgt. in 2009, which added R$1,000 (US$588.23) to his monthly income, bringing it to R$3,200 (US$1,882.35).
His monthly income should go up yet again by close to R$400 (US$235.29), thanks to a Minister of Justice’s award to police officers undergoing training.
“I live with my father-in-law because we need to take care of him and my mother-in-law’s sister,” he says. “But my dream is to own my own home. I will get there.”
With considerable social gains during President Lula’s tenure, experts are betting that public policies will suffer little changes, regardless of whether Dilma Rousseff or José Serra wins on Oct. 31.
“In social policies, there is what we call a waterfall effect,” Santoro says. “This happens once a policy wins such support that there’s no going back. That’s the case with Bolsa Família.”
Vítor Rocha contributed from Salvador, Bahia.