What Can We Do About Poverty? Ask Brazil.
When I came to Canada I could not stop commenting to my family and friends how different Ottawa was compared to my home country Brazil. I saw no homeless people on the streets, nobody living under bridges or in public places, no slums - situations that are part of daily life in a developing country.
However, lately I have become more aware of the poverty that exists in Canada. Recently, I was walking downtown with my family and a man in torn and dirty clothes approached us, asking for money. Less than five minutes later, someone else did the same. On our way back my daughter saw one of them digging in the garbage. These are warning signs that should not be ignored. Should we let this reality become “normal”? Should we let the situation get worse? No. We need to take action.
A nation can change and improve its social conditions. However, serious action is required. An example of this initiative is the Brazilian Bolsa Família (Family Grant), a conditional cash transfer program launched by the federal government in 2003 that became law in 2004. It has proven to be extremely successful in the fight against poverty.
The program provides financial assistance through direct income transfer to families living in poverty and extreme poverty. It focuses on three essential dimensions to overcoming hunger and poverty by providing immediate relief through direct transfer of income; stimulating the exercise of basic social rights in the areas of Health and Education through socio-educational activities, contributing to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty; and through coordination with other social programs such as the Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) program. Through Zero Hunger, 47 million free school meals are provided every day (CONSEA, 2009), promoting literacy, school attendance, adequate nutrition and health.
Upon entering the Bolsa Família program, families have to comply with some conditions in order to keep receiving the benefit. These commitments are:
- School attendance of at least 85% for children and adolescents aged six to 15 years and a minimum of 75% for adolescents 16 and 17 years old;
- Regular medical visits to monitor growth and development of children under seven years of age and to ensure that vaccines are up to date;
- Regular prenatal visits for pregnant women and nursing mothers;
- Minimum attendance of 85% to socio-educational services for children and adolescents up to age 15 who were withdrawn from child labour or who are deemed at-risk.
In case the family does not follow these conditions, the government issues a warning, and if this is not observed, the benefit can be suspended or even cancelled.
The program encountered a lot of criticism when it was launched and some still claim that it fosters laziness, discourages employment, and facilitates unwise financial decisions (e.g., wasting it all on alcohol and drugs).
The numbers and statistics, however, tell a different story. According to the World Bank, Bolsa Família is among the most effective social protection programs in the world, having helped raise approximately 20 million people out of poverty between 2003 and 2009. In September 2010, at least 12.7 million families (or nearly 50 million people) benefited from the program. Bénédicte de la Brière from the World Bank states: "Adult work is not impacted by income transfers. In some cases adults will even work harder because having this safety net encourages them to assume greater risks in their activities".
There are many differences between Brazil and Canada. In 2010, Canada’s GDP per capita was 46,236. In Brazil it was US$10,7101. Brazil is a developing country with many social problems. However, the results of Bolsa Família show Canada that governments can substantially reduce poverty.
Member of Parliament Ms. Kirsty Duncan is working hard to implement a national school meal program in Canada and recognizes the Brazilian example as a good one to follow. She says: “In Brazil, food is a constitutional right. A massive program feeds 47 million students at 190,000 schools each day. If a national school meals program could be implemented in Canada’s high schools at a cost of $1.25 per meal, with a goal of increasing graduation rates by 3%, the payback would be more than $500 million”.
Poverty eradication is a practical and achievable goal as the Brazilian example demonstrates. Canada has the means to eradicate poverty. It is just a matter of making it happen!
- 1. Source: World Bank
Patricia is CPJ's Socio-Economic Policy Analyst
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