Bolsa Família in Brazil

Great Policy Successes This case study corresponds to a chapter by Luis Henrique Paiva, Tereza Cristina Cotta and Armando Barrientos, entitled "Brazil’s Bolsa Família Programme", in the book Great Policy Successes, co-edited by Mallory Compton and Paul 't Hart. The book brings together fifteen cases of highly successful governance from around the world. For further information on this line of research, see: https://successfulpublicgovernance.com.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s high levels of hunger, poverty and inequality characterised urban life in many, and particularly the densely populated, cities in Brazil. The Programa Bolsa Família (PBF) is a government programme introduced in 2003 by the then-president, Lula da Silva. Under PBF low-income families receive cash transfers on the condition that they, for example, send their children to school and ensure they are properly vaccinated. The conditional cash transfer model successfully reduced levels of inequality and hunger – with significantly fewer people living below the poverty line – and closing the historical rural-urban gap. 

The challenge

For many decades, Brazil struggled with the problems of structural inequality and poverty, with high levels of hunger and deprivation – most notoriously in the favelas, the shanty towns surrounding big cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The World Bank estimates that between 1995 and 2003, there were over 20 million Brazilians (or roughly 11 percent of the total population) living below the international poverty line, which was then defined as earning less than USD1.90 a day.[1] In the 1980s, Brazil was the world’s second-most unequal country in terms of income. Its Gini coefficient – a commonly used income distribution measure taking values from 0 to 100, with 100 indicating a totally unequal society – kept on rising until 1993, when it stood at 59.5, after which it started to decline, reaching 56.4 in 2004. This is still a high figure: European countries generally score in the 20s or low 30s, and the US in the 40s.[2]

At the same time, social safety nets were ineffective at protecting low-income households, and failed to cover the large informal labour sector. The fruits of Brazil’s economic opening were not equally shared, as was shown by high unemployment rates and a persistent lack of growth in formal-sector jobs. Despite annual GDP growth rates of up to 6 percent (albeit volatile after 1995), the unemployment rate rose steadily from 4.2 percent in 1990 to 10 percent in 2003.[3] The industrial reforms of the 1990s failed to provide a step-change, with 45 percent of workers engaged in informal-sector jobs between 1999 and 2003.[4] 

Many poorer Brazilians were stuck in a vicious cycle, where short-term needs undermined long-term ability to overcome economic hardship. Out of immediate and pressing necessity, most family members – regardless of their age – would seek formal or informal employment to contribute to household income. As a result, many children were unable to acquire the education that would enable them to escape from the poverty cycle in the long-term, creating a transgenerational problem.. 

Similarly, young mothers often felt compelled to forego critical health checks during pregnancy and afterwards. They were less likely to attend medical checkups with their children, preventing them from getting vaccinated. High child mortality – and the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes – exacerbated the financial risk threatening low-income families. Although Brazil’s universal healthcare system provided some protection, a 2007 study showed that the indirect costs of Type 2 Diabetes alone were USD773 per patient per year. These resulted from absenteeism from work of both patients and their carers.[5] Missing out on the necessary preventative health measures thus posed a clear long-term financial risk for low-income households, as well as endangering the financial sustainability of the universal healthcare system. 

Previous approaches by Brazilian governments had failed to address this complex problem. After 1995, the poverty and inequality crisis began to see an “expansion of Brazil’s cash-based social assistance system”.[6] One such programme, the Bolsa Escola, grew from a municipal initiative to become federal programme in 2001.[7] However, these early conditional cash transfer (CCT) programmes were each administered through separate municipalities and ministries and were fragmented across sectors, each tackling a different aspect of poverty. They did not provide the systematic and coordinated solution that was needed.

The initiative

In October 2003, the federal government under President Lula da Silva introduced the Programa Bolsa Família (PBF), a nationwide CCT programme managed by the relevant local administration within a federal infrastructure. It was created from the merger of four existing programmes: Bolsa Escola, Bolsa Alimentação, Cartão Alimentação, Auxílio-Gás, and – in 2006 – of the Child Labour Eradication Programme [Programa de e Erradicação do Trabalho Infantil] (PETI). Its aim was to “improve the efficiency and coherence of the social safety net and to scale up assistance to provide universal coverage of Brazil’s poor”.[8]

Bolsa Família’s main objectives were to:

  • Reduce poverty and inequality by providing a minimum level of income for extremely poor families.
  • Break the cycle of poverty by making the income transfers conditional. The conditional element is that families receive the cash only if they adhere to core responsibilities, such as taking their children to the doctor whenever the need arises and ensuring that they attend school. It aims to break the poverty cycle by obliging the recipients to invest in human capital.
  • Empower PBF beneficiaries by linking them to complementary services, such as employment training and social assistance programmes.

Households eligible for the Bolsa Família programme receive a monthly income transfer based on their household income and composition. At its inception in 2003, “households with per capita monthly incomes up to BRL70 [were] entitled to a fixed household transfer of BRL70 plus an additional amount of BRL32 for each child up to fifteen years of age, to a maximum of five, and an additional amount of BRL38 for each youth aged sixteen to seventeen, to a maximum of two. The maximum benefit amount for households in extreme poverty [was] therefore BRL242. ” The conditionalities attached to these transfers include school attendance for teenagers, immunisation of children, prenatal monitoring for pregnant women, and remedial education for children and for those at risk of being drawn into child labour.[7] Local governments collect the data on eligibility and compliance, but payments are made by the federal government. “Each beneficiary receives a debit card which is charged up every month, unless the recipient has not met the necessary conditions, in which case (and after a couple of warnings) the payment is suspended.”[9]

Launched in 2003, the PBF evolved over time, with the period between 2004 and 2006 being widely considered as formative. The monitoring of conditionalities started in 2006. Four years later, a study found that income can vary vastly across months and years, so the PBF began measuring eligibility over a minimum two-year period. This means that families who go over the self-reported income threshold in certain months do not run the risk of being excluded, as they meet the criteria for most of the year. In 2012, the PBF started targeting noncompliant households with additional social assistance measures.[8]

The public impact

Bolsa Família has been recognised globally as a model for CCT programmes. The PBF reaches 11.1 million families (over 46 million people) per year, making it the largest CCT programme in the world. It demonstrates a positive impact across the following dimensions: programme access and reach, poverty, inequality and hunger reduction, as well as health and educational outcomes. .

By unifying four other CCT programmes, the PBF inherited about eight million beneficiaries.[10] However, since its inception in 2003, PBF has significantly expanded reach and access, offering conditional cash transfer to c. 46 million people, or one in every four families in Brazil. 75 percent of beneficiaries are Afro-Brazilians and 54 percent are women. The PBF operates in all 5,570 municipalities in Brazil, through a network of 176,000 local operators, making the programme accesible across all of Brazil.[11

Bolsa Família has also successfully reduced poverty, inequality and hunger. By 2015, the percentage of the population living below the international poverty line, according to the World Bank, had dropped from 13 percentage points to three (c. seven million people).[1] It is estimated that “the level of extreme poverty would be between 33 percent and 50 percent higher without the PBF. The programme has also contributed to reducing income inequality, accounting for 12 to 21 percent of the recent sharp decline”.[12] The programme was responsible for approximately 28 percent of the total poverty reduction in Brazil, and from 2002 to 2012 the number of Brazilians living on less than BRN70 a week fell from 8.8 percent to 3.6 percent. “According to a recent UN study, the number of people suffering from hunger decreased from 22.8 million people in 1992 to 13.6 million in 2012.”[6]

However, there is some uncertainty around whether the PBF improves health and educational outcomes. PBF monitors almost 10 million people for health conditionalities and over 15 million students for school attendance and educational outcomes.[11] Many academic reviews highlight the fact that the programme does nothing to improve the quality of public services, which is widely regarded as low, though this was not the aim of the programme. One study from 2011 “did not find significant differences relating to school attendance by beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries between 6 and 17 years of age... With regard to conditioning factors in the area of health, more positive results among beneficiaries than among non-beneficiaries have only been found with child vaccination.” 

Particularly, in its early years, the PBF faced criticism due to the relatively inefficient control of conditioning factors. Decentralised management meant that beneficiaries were not registered consistently and that data might vary across locations.. This topic was a particular media concern, accounting for most of the sceptical coverage between 2004 and 2006, which focused on false inclusion and benefit fraud.[15]

This case study was written by Stevan Ćirković

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Public Confidence Good

The PBF is one of Brazil’s most popular benefit programme, being supported by three in four voters in 2014. Brazilians had also expressed a consistently high approval for the programme’s “father”, President Lula – from the time he took office in 2003 until the end of his second term in 2010. He has remained popular despite a corruption conviction that was upheld against him in 2018. [14] The programme’s popularity among the electorate had to be earned, however, with many Brazilians expressing concerns about programme implementation in early years. 

An analysis of domestic press articles published from 2001 to 2006 indicates limited support from the media and the public for CCTs in 2003. In the transitional phase from 2004 to 2006, when most of the programme’s features were solidified,  public support for CCTs became even more ambivalent. Key concerns included, for example, who should be covered by PBF, and how false inclusion or benefit fraud could be avoided. These concerns led policy-makers to increasingly stress the conditionalities, which started to be perceived as legitimising factors and a means against welfare dependency. Thanks to this and the growing media coverage of the PBF’s impact, Bolsa Família was recognised as the biggest success of President Lula in a 2007 survey.[15] 

In January 2003, one year after his election, President Lula’s approval rating stood at 83 percent . In the last month of his presidency in December 2010, he again crossed the 80 percent mark – a record high.[21] On the whole he was regarded positively and was re-elected in 2006. “Analysts say it is because of some of his government's social programmes – which benefit tens of millions of Brazilians – that Lula has maintained huge popularity among the electorate… By increasing the minimum wage well above inflation and broadening state help to the most impoverished with a family grant programme, the Bolsa Família, he has helped some 44 million people and cemented his support among the poor.”[22]

Stakeholder Engagement Good

During the Bolsa Família policy design process, local stakeholders included high-level federal bureaucrats, poverty campaigners, academics, and the World Bank. After a period of initial conflict among the ministries managing the existing CCTs (see also Political Commitment below), the PBF ultimately was supported by all stakeholders, recognising the need to unify efforts in the context of the complex challenges. However, today, stakeholder support seems to be drifting as many social rights campaigners are demanding for additional government support to address the complex challenges of inequality, poverty and hunger.

Internationally, the World Bank was a key stakeholder and played a critical role in the Bolsa Família consolidation by providinga USD572 million loan in 2004 for the first stage of the programme, and an additional USD200 million loan for the second phase between 2004 and 2009.[16]

Assessments of the PBF have gone as far as to say that the programme has “bolstered the ability of recipients to claim rights and participate as citizens in the political system”.[16] However, it has been identified that strengthening communication and dialogue with the PBF stakeholders to inform programme design could be improved and should be made a priority.[6][18]

Political Commitment Strong

At the time of its creation, the ruling party in the federal government was highly committed to PBF, being keen to sidestep the predominantly conservative governors to avoid their blocking parts of the initiative.[19] Lula da Silva and his Worker’s Party championed the principle of CCT programmes as a means of reducing poverty, hunger and inequality and advocated for a consolidation of existing programmes. “The issue of combining the federal government’s cash transfer programmes was part of President Lula da Silva’s election platform.”[12]

Although initially focused on the Zero Hunger programme, the president’s leadership was crucial to the establishment of PBF at several points, making it the flagship social policy of his tenure. “After months of dispute among different ministries, President Lula decided to change his initial decision and to alter the priority of his government's social policies from the Zero Hunger Programme to the merger of the existing CCTs programmes. At this point, President Lula decided to... create a small group of high-level federal bureaucrats with the responsibility of managing the first initiatives of the newly created PBF.”[13] 

The period immediately after da Silva’s election to the presidency was characterised by an intense debate over the right social policies. This revealed the wide fragmentation and lack of coordination of anti-poverty measures. When a multi-ministerial coordination group called the Social Policy Chamber failed to make progress on the issue, “a small group of high-level federal bureaucrats [was chosen] to conduct the unification of CCTs, working directly with the presidency.”[13] In 2004, the newly-created Ministry of Social Development and Fight against Hunger [Ministério do Desenvolvimento Social e Combate à Fome] (MDS) ended the institutional dispute by replacing other ministries and taking charge of PBF’s implementation as a single hierarchical body. Only then did public administrators swiftly agree on next steps. [13]

Nowadays, there is a strong political consensus in favour of the PBF, with each party taking credit for their role in creating the programme. This is likely to ensure its survival amidst future political turmoil. The new Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, who is known to be opposed to welfare programmes in general, has nevertheless assured voters that he would not abolish PBF.[20]

Policy

Clear Objectives Fair

The broad objective of the PBF was to reduce the levels of poverty, inequality and hunger in Brazil. The more specific objective was to achieve this through a single CCT programme, consolidating four existing programmes (see The Initiative above). The objectives have been maintained consistently since the launch of the PBF, and its impact is measurable through indicators such as the number of families who have registered and the number of Brazilians living below the poverty line. However, there is no evidence that the Brazilian government committed to specifically quantifiable targets for any of the programme’s objectives.

Evidence Strong

The evidence used to design Bolsa Família was very robust, because it stemmed not only from Brazil’s own experience with CCTs but also the well-researched Mexican Oportunidades programme. The World Bank promoted this single, unified CCT model, offering significant technical support and resources on implementation and impacts. 

The PBF was based on four similar CCT programmes in Brazil, which it brought together within a single programme: PBF “builds on the foundations of previous programmes and increases their impact through strengthened institutional arrangements, targeting, monitoring, and evaluation”.[6] In addition, the Brazilian government implemented the Programa do Cartão Alimentação (PCA) pilot before launching the PBF initiative. The PCA was “managed by the former Ministry of Food Security and provided a monthly benefit payment of BRL50 to poor families with a monthly per capita income of less than half the minimum wage”.[23] The PCA sought to promote food consumption, and recipients received cash transfers for food purchases.

The principle of a consolidated, single CCT programme had been established in Mexico in 1997 in the renamed Oportunidades programme. “Oportunidades focuses on helping poor families in rural and urban communities invest in human capital – improving the education, health, and nutrition of their children – leading to the long-term improvement of their economic future and the consequent reduction of poverty in Mexico. By providing income transfers to households (linked to regular school attendance and health clinic visits), the programme also fulfils the aim of alleviating current poverty.”[24]

Feasibility Fair

Unlike in Mexico, where the Oportunidades programme was only expanded nationwide after first targeting those in highest need, the Brazilian government prioritised the rapid scale-up of the PBF. Although its general operational feasibility had already been established by previous CCTs and by Mexico’s experience, Brazil’s quick scale-up carried certain feasibility risks, as implementation capacities varied and governance structures were only just being finalised in 2006. 

In particular, the skills necessary for implementing the new CCT system were not widely available within local bureaucracies, and the roles and responsibilities of local managers were unclear. Local authorities were reportedly confused about inclusion criteria, leading to benefit duplication in the transitional year of 2004 when other CCTs still coexisted with the PBF, suggesting a lack of direction and training. There was also “initial confusion over the respective roles of municipal and central government in beneficiary selection”, which were later transferred entirely to federal authorities.[25] 

Similarly, varying levels of municipal capacity were seen as a barrier to the effective implementation of the PBF. “This is confirmed by a number of anecdotal studies that have looked at municipal capacity in different places. One study points to difficulty in gathering data on eligible families.”[26] In some states, significant reforms of local government were necessary in the years following PBF's launch.[26]

By contrast, the PBF was deemed to be financially feasible through the loans from the World Bank and by combining benefit services. One of the goals of consolidating the initial four CCTs into a single programme was to improve efficiency by reducing administrative costs, thereby strengthening the financial sustainability. “Federal administrative costs fell from 5.3 percent of total pre-reform programme outlays in 2002 to 2.6 percent under the PBF in 2005.”[8]

Action

Management Good

The PBF is managed in a multilayered and decentralised fashion, being a federally funded and municipally implemented initiative. On the federal level, there exists a formal top layer of steering and infrastructure. Despite the varying resources of Brazil’s local government bodies, this management system is generally robust because governance structures are kept simple (especially its means-testing), and technical support is provided efficiently through federal bodies. It is important to make the caveat, however, that the system was only consolidated in 2006. In previous years, its foundations were the object of debate and criticism, which could have endangered the PBF’s rollout.[8] 

The main federal body is the Bolsa Família Secretariat, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Social Development and oversees both the PBF and the Single Registry [Cadastro Único]. The Secretariat is responsible for selecting recipients, authorising payments, enforcing conditionality (e.g. children’s school enrolment), monitoring the PBF, and training municipal managers. 

The other layers of the PBF are as follows:

  • Municipalities provide a local programme point-of-contact, register beneficiaries in the Single Registry, and monitor conditionalities. They also provide targeted complementary social assistance such as professional training.
  • The Caixa Econômica Federal manages the Single Registry and pays beneficiaries on their electronic cards.  
  • The Ministries of Health and Education are responsible for establishing technical and guidelines regarding school attendance and health conditionalities.
  • State governments provide technical support and training to municipalities. 
  • Three controls agencies – the General Controller's Office, the Federal Audits Court, and the Office of the Public Prosecutor – are responsible for formal oversight of the PBF.[8]  

The federal government introduced innovative, performance-based management mechanisms to monitor and manage the PBF. For example, one mechanism promoted incentives for quality implementation, and was designed to assign control of the operation of registration and payments to the federal government, which provided the funding.[8] Institutional reforms improved the management of the Cadastro Único database, while “the very impressive targeting accuracy of the programme [was] achieved through geographic mechanisms and means-testing under the Cadastro Único, with 73 percent of the transfers of the PBF going to the poorest quintile and 94 percent going to the poorest two quintiles.”[27]

Measurement Strong

Several indicators were used to measure the impact of the PBF, including:

  • Socio-demographic profiles of those receiving the payments
  • Levels of family and individual income and poverty
  • Children’s enrolment education and measures of educational achievement
  • Health indicators, such as vaccine rates and height and weight relative to age.

Effective monitoring tools and agencies were dedicated to improving the PBF’s performance. “In addition to ongoing monitoring of inputs, outputs, results and processes, the MDS is responsible for carrying out or contracting impact evaluations of the PBF. From the time the Ministry was created, [it] has established a special secretariat devoted to information and evaluations.”[8]

Given the varying administrative capacities at the local level, the federal government assessed “the municipal quality of implementation via a quantifiable Index of Decentralised Management [Indice de Gestão Descentralizada] (IGD) based on four key quality aspects”, including valid registration and up-to-date registry information, completeness of conditionality monitoring, and “the share of families with complete information on compliance with health conditionalities... The IGD is calculated as the sum of scores for each of these areas, with each dimension representing 25 percent of the index value.”[8]

Alignment Strong

All the actors, including the federal, state and local governments, the monitoring agency, other government agencies, such as the General Controller’s Office and the Office of the Public Prosecutor, executed their roles effectively and shared a common interest in making the PBF work. “Such coordination distinguishes Bolsa Família from its sector-based predecessors. The main players in the federal arena are the Bolsa programme’s national secretariat (which is directly linked to the office of the president), the new [MDS], the sector ministries, and the Caixa Econômica Federal (Federal Savings Bank), in its capacity as the entity operating the Cadastro Único and responsible for payment.”[28]

Initially, some federal states continued to have their own CCT programmes, which meant that there was a risk of potential duplication. To solve this problem, sub-national programmes were merged into the PBF via joint cooperation agreements between the federal government and the individual states.[8] The federal government also collaborated closely with the World Bank and academic specialists in its analysis and design of the PBF.