Is ending poverty as simple as giving people money? Brazil’s Bolsa Familia program has risen millions of families above the poverty line. In the U.S., safety net programs are being examined by analysts and government officials to see how effective they really are. It is true that programs like income tax credit, extended unemployment insurance, food stamps and other safety net programs kept millions from falling into poverty. A study by the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers estimates that the boost in safety net spending held the increase in poverty to a minimum even as the US endured extreme economic woes. In the long term however, a recent study on economic mobility in the U.S. found that the figure has been stuck for a half century – despite the many programs meant to help the less advantaged climb the income ladder. The politics of poverty remain divisive – clouded historically by racial and demographic dynamics.
Brazil confronted a similar political landscape when it began discussing a broad assault on poverty more than a decade ago. The poor were predominantly black, clustered in the north, and uneducated. There were strong arguments that simply giving away money would be a massive rip-off for taxpayers. Though controversial, the government a decade ago decided that any family under the poverty line would be given enough money to put them over it. The “Bolsa Familia” program now provides 14 million poor families with much needed income. There are relatively few strings attached. The only requirement, is that children in the families who receive funds go to school. Brazil believes that for the individual family, “income is the easiest criteria to move…start with income and then solve the other stuff.” After a decade, follow up studies show falling infant mortality rates for the families involved with the Bolsa program; and, remarkably, poor kids are now performing above the national average in high school. Should the US adopt its own “Bolsa Familia?”