What is the Future of the Bolsa Família Program? / by Mark Langevin

For many the Bolsa Família (or Family Stipend) program has been the hallmark of the Brasilia consensus since 2003 when the government coalition, headed by the Workers Party, aimed to institutionalize pro-growth and income redistribution policies as the twin heads of a national development program.  In her recent briefing, Celia Lessa Kerstenetzky responds to the question about the future direction of the program after a widely recognized and successful first decade.  In the briefing, What is the Future of the Bolsa Família Program? she reports,

"When speculating about the programme’s near future, two distinct visions come to mind. In the first, by transferring cash to eligible poor people and targeting social services at them, the programme will take over the core of the Brazilian welfare state. In the other, the programme will find a proper place within a universalistic, rights-based social welfare architecture."

 The first is vision is a liberal response to the legacy of poverty and discrimination in Brazil; the second is a economic and political project aimed at transforming Brazilian development and democracy by creating the conditions for an equal playing field for all Brazilians.  The first vision may not succeed in addressing all of the brutal aspects of Brazil's legacy of poverty and discrimination and the second may be an overly ambitious response to the promise of democracy as a system of political representation, not necessarily a recipe for universal equality. Kerstenetzky argues,

"Back in the origins of the 2001 Bolsa Escola, and especially later with the 2003 Bolsa Família programme’s inclusion of extremely poor childless families, one finds a plain rejection of pauperism. These programmes were based on the non-pauperist assumption that poverty is not fundamentally a matter of wrong choices by poor people but, rather, a lack of social and economic opportunities and protection—a diagnosis that couches them in the tradition of the universalistic welfare state (the second vision described above). "
She may be correct in her observation that former President Lula's intent may have coincided with an analysis of the fundamental lack of opportunities, but this was the founding premise of his Workers Party, its very reason to govern.  Yet, the Workers Party led government, whether under Lula or current President Dilma Rousseff, may not embrace the entire project of building a universalist welfare state, only those aspects that parallel its electoral underpinnings.  Despite the briefing paper's obvious value to all of us, Kerstenetzky does not offer a political-electoral analysis of the program or its future.  However, she does conclude that,

"making explicit the non- pauperist assumptions of the Bolsa Família programme—and unambiguously acting on them— may be the expected contributions of the public officials in charge of it to the public conversation on the programme’s future."
In large measure, the upcoming 2014 federal elections, including that for the presidency, may decide the future of this watershed public policy program; and in doing so, frame how Brazil goes about including those at the margins of the global economy and Brazilian society for decades to come.