Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bolsa Familia!

This is pretty high up on my list of Things That Are Awesome:
Brazil’s level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than that of almost any other country. Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians. Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent...a major part of Brazil’s achievement is due to a single social program that is now transforming how countries all over the world help their poor.

Brazil’s conditional cash transfer programs were begun before the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but he consolidated various programs and expanded it. It now covers about 50 million Brazilians, about a quarter of the country. It pays a monthly stipend of about $13 to poor families for each child 15 or younger who is attending school, up to three children. Families can get additional payments of $19 a month for each child of 16 or 17 still in school, up to two children. Families that live in extreme poverty get a basic benefit of about $40, with no conditions.

Do these sums seem heartbreakingly small? They are. But a family living in extreme poverty in Brazil doubles its income when it gets the basic benefit. It has long been clear that Bolsa Familia has reduced poverty in Brazil. But research has only recently revealed its role in enabling Brazil to reduce economic inequality.

It's worth reading. The idea of conditioning the payments on people doing basic right things, like graduating from high school or taking their kids in for medical checkups, is a really nice one.

A program like this is going to show far more dramatic results in Brazil than it will in America. A country that has really tremendous inequality, with the people at the bottom earning $40 a month, is primed for a given quantity of cash to have a tremendous impact.

This is one of the reasons that I often like to ask people from other countries like India and Malaysia how one can go about influencing political developments in their homelands. In terms of making the world a better place, the amount of bang for your buck you can get by changing the facts on the ground out there is incredible. I generally approach these things by trying to impact US policy that affects developing countries in favorable ways, because that's the system I know most about and the one where I'm a citizen, and the US government has lots of resources. But in a country with lots of money up top and terrible poverty at the bottom, like Brazil, people who can affect politics so that programs like this are instituted have a wonderful opportunity to do great things.

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