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Bolsa Família : A Review

After describing the origin,
the main features and some of
the impacts of Bolsa Família, a
conditional cash transfer family
welfare programme that has
become one of Brazil’s showpiece
achievements, this essay discusses
the changes in the programme
over time as well as the current
and future challenges. The article
outlines the circumstances that
led to its adoption by the federal
government and how its final
design was influenced by all
“competing views”, rather than
by the thinking of a specific
interest group. Bolsa Família
has demonstrated a flexibility to
adapt to the needs of the times,
a quality that should stand it in
good stead in the years to come.


This article aims to describe the origin,
the main characteristics and some
of the impacts of Bolsa Família, a
Brazilian conditional cash transfer (CCT)
family welfare programme, to understand
its changes over time as well as the challenges
it faces now and in the future. We
outline the circumstances that led to its
adoption by the federal government and
discuss which “approaches” were more influential
in its final design. It is important
to bear in mind that, as is usual in public
policy, the final design of the programme
was influenced by all “competing views”
rather than by the thinking of a specific
interest group. The inception of Bolsa
Família came at the end of a relatively long
process. From 1995, with initial experiences
at the sub-national level, to its actual
implementation in 2003, it took a long
time and lots of pressure for the federal
government to first decide to adopt the
programme and then to implement it on a
large scale. The evolution of Bolsa Família
is the story of a fight for legitimacy in the
sphere of social protection policies in Brazil.
That the programme is not embedded as a
right has lent it the flexibility to adapt but
also brought it under more scrutiny and
accusations of being used for political purposes
than any other social assistance or
protection project in the country.

Following the Latin American tradition,
contributory social insurance had been
a dominant feature of social protection
in Brazil since the 1930s. But protecting
only formal sector workers excluded the
majority of the population from any negative
shock. Social assistance, understood
as non-contributory benefits, was almost
non-existent, and what was there was
mostly based on in-kind transfers of a
philanthropic nature. It only started being
implemented on a reasonable scale with
the introduction of two non-contributory
benefits – the Fundo de Assistência Previdência
do Trabalhador Rural (FUNRURAL),
a pension for the elderly heads of households
in rural areas, and Renda Mensal
Vitalícia (RMV), a pension paid to the elderly
poor and the disabled. Both programmes
were introduced during the authoritarian
regime in the 1970s. The 1988 constitution
broadened and upgraded these programmes
and the value of their benefits. The Benefício
de Prestação Continuada (Continuous
Benefits), which replaced the RMV, and the
earlier rural pension pay minimum wages
to their beneficiaries and have been responsible
for the negligible poverty rate
among the elderly in Brazil.

The focus of these two major noncontributory
cash transfer programmes,
which have budgets larger than the one
Bolsa Família has, was those who were
not able to work and whose relatives could
not help them. The innovation that came
with Bolsa Família in the field of cash
transfers had three features – a focus on
family, not individual, entitlements despite
specific components for children ; the introduction
of co-responsibilities or conditionalities ;
and the possibility of having
“able-bodied” beneficiaries. Unlike the two
other cash transfer programmes, Bolsa
Família aimed to complement the family
income rather than replace it. CCT programmes
in Latin America share some
core characteristics such as the existence
of targeting mechanisms ; the notion of coresponsibilities,
especially in health and
education, to foster the accumulation of
human capital by children ; and the practice
of payments being made in cash.
These are apart from the two core objectives
of poverty alleviation in the shortterm
and of breaking the intergenerational
transmission of poverty in the long term.
But CCT programmes also differ a great
deal from one another. The distinctions
are mostly determined by two basic criteria
– the emphasis placed on each of the CCT
goals and the way programmes are positioned
in the social protection system of
each country.

Bolsa Família clearly emphasises the
poverty alleviation component whereas
other programmes such as Oportunidades,
a health and education scheme in Mexico
with a strong focus on conditionalities,
focus on the goal of human capital accumulation
of the next generation. Different
from Bolsa Família and Oportunidades, Chile
Solidario, with a strong focus on support
for indigent families and complementary programmes, looks more at the social and
economic inclusion of the current generation,
stressing its need to facilitate the
access of beneficiaries to social services
and programmes.

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Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.