Antipoverty transfers and inclusive growth in Brazil

This overview is based on the journal article ‘Heterogeneity in Bolsa Família outcomes’, by Armando Barrientos, Dario Debowicz and Ingrid Woolard.

The evolution of social assistance in Brazil

Brazil emerged from dictatorship in 1985 with a huge ‘social debt’, a commitment to address this debt and a ferment of ideas on the way forward. The 1988 Constitution was a watershed moment in the development of social assistance in Brazil. It enshrined the principle that governments have a responsibility to address poverty and ensure minimum living standards for all citizens independently of their capacity to contribute to social insurance. Agreement on this point provided the basis for the expansion of social assistance in the following two decades and was a break from the contributory principle dominant in the past.

Conceptually, the policy instruments adopted in the period immediately following the new Constitution—Previdência Social Rural and the Benefício de Prestação Continuada—were not especially innovative or far-sighted. Their orientation was firmly rooted in conventional welfare policy—on a distinction between individuals with or without the ability to work. They focussed on old-age poverty and on disability but failed to address child poverty. However, their reach has been impressive, pushing pension coverage of people aged 65 and over to just over 86 per cent, among the highest in the region.

The Bolsa Família programme, on the other hand, developed out of municipal experimentation with Bolsa Escola1 in the early-1990s, rooted in a mix of guaranteed income proposals, multidimensional perspectives on poverty, and education interventions. Bolsa Família greatly ƒexpanded the coverage of Bolsa Escola and other income transfer programmes, with the number of households participatingƒ increasing from 6.5 million in 2004 to 14 million in 2013. ƒ

The evolution of anti-poverty policies in Brazil suggests a shift in focus over time from the extension of social insurance to incorporate excluded sectors, to conventional social assistance directed at vulnerable groups, to human development-focussed income transfers. In 2011, the government announced the Plano Brasil Sem Miséria as its strategy to eradicate extreme poverty. The plan articulates policies and programmes based on the view that eradicating extreme poverty requires a coordinated effort aimed at improving income/consumption, improving access to basic services and facilitating productive employment.

The primary social assistance programmes in Brazil:6

Benefício de Prestação Continuada

  • Focus: A nationwide non-contributory pension scheme for old people and people with disabilities living in extreme poverty
  • Eligibility: Those aged over 65 years and those with disabilities (irrespective of age) in households with a per capita income of less than a quarter of the minimum wage
  • Monthly benefits: One minimum wage: BRL788 (USD202)
  • Reach: 3.7 million beneficiaries, split evenly between old age and disability
  • Outcomes: Benefits are shared within households, leading to a lower incidence of child labour
  • Budget as a percentage of GDP: 0.7


Previdência Social Rural

  • Focus: A semi-contributory pension scheme for rural workers with low contributory capacity
  • Eligibility: Long-term rural informal workers (over 15 years) in family agriculture, fishing or mining
  • Monthly benefits: One minimum wage BRL788 (USD202)
  • Reach: 7.8 million beneficiaries
  • Outcomes: Helped to lift an estimated 4 million people out of extreme poverty, and boosted economic activity in rural areas; has reduced child labour and increased school enrolment rates when children co-reside with a pensioner
  • Budget as percentage of GDP: 1.4


Bolsa Família

  • Focus: A minimum income for households living in extreme poverty and households living in moderate poverty with children
  • Eligibility: Households with per capita monthly income of less than BRL77 (USD19) and households with children with per capita income of less BRL154 (USD39)
  • Monthly benefits: Basic transfers = BRL77 (USD1935); variable transfers = BRL35 (USD9) per child (aged 0–15, up to five); and BRL42 (USD11) for each youth (aged 16–17, up to two); top-up benefit closing the gap to the per capita income threshold of BRL77
  • Reach: 14 million households
  • Outcomes: Estimates suggest it has been responsible for around one-third of the reduction in extreme poverty between 1999 and 2009, and has helped reduce inequality; children in participating households are healthier, spend more time in school, and infant mortality is reduced; labour force participation rates are largely unaffected
  • Budget as a percentage of GDP: 0.6


Key finding: Bolsa Família has a stronger impact in poorer municipalities

Studies on the impact of Bolsa Família on participant households focus mainly on mean outcomes at the national level. Some studies have estimated outcomes at a more disaggregated level—for example, by gender or by rural/urban location. We examined the variation across municipalities by estimating quantile regressions of municipal participation rates on selected outcomes using data from the National Household Sample Survey (PNAD) from 2001 to 2006.

Social assistance in Brazil

We found significant differences in outcomes across municipalities for certain outcomes. The distribution of outcomes for girls’ school attendance peaks in the bottom quantiles of municipalities ranked from low to high in attendance rates for girls in school. This result suggests that municipalities with low school attendance rates benefitted the most from Bolsa Família. The programme has had positive and stronger effects on the more disadvantaged municipalities, suggesting that it will contribute to inclusive growth over and above its mean effects. By contrast, Bolsa Família does not appear to be associated with changes in adult labour supply rates across municipalities. This finding applies to the entire distribution of municipalities.

The sustainability of social assistance programmes

Two decades of rapid growth in social assistance institutions have secured important achievements, but institutional development in Brazil is far from complete. The Ministry of Social Development and Fight Against Hunger is engaged in consolidating anti-poverty policy across government agencies and in strengthening its institutional framework. Combining the three main strategies for inclusion in Brazil is a challenge for the emerging welfare institutions. Extending the coverage of referral social assistance centres will provide ground-level support for families facing acute deprivation and poverty.

The growth of social assistance reflects government efforts to shift the balance of public subsidies from social insurance to social assistance. While the emergence of social assistance is a step forward, the imbalance remains large. Public subsidies to the public-sector social insurance fund are roughly equal to of the sum of all public subsidies to social assistance. Looking into the future, further rebalancing public subsidies within social protection at large is an important challenge.

To date, social assistance in Brazil has enjoyed broad political support, ensuring its political sustainability. All presidential candidates in elections since 2000 have supported Bolsa Família, with the health and education conditions helping to bolster the consensus. Furthermore, there is little evidence that poverty reduction programmes have encouraged clientelism among beneficiaries. Bolsa Família is perceived as a rules-based federal programme, not subject to political patronage. Sustaining political support for social assistance is essential.

Relevance to African countries

The effectiveness of Bolsa Família, combined with the Lula administration’s focus on re-engaging with Africa, created an opportunity for knowledge sharing between Brazil and Africa. Brazil has hosted numerous study visits from African delegations and has given ongoing technical support for some of the countries seeking to implement or expand their provision of social assistance. The Mundo sem Miséria (World Without Poverty, WWP) initiative, launched in 2014, supports a poverty reduction knowledge bank which can be used by other developing countries.

Policy implications

To be effective and politically sustainable, anti-poverty transfers must be appropriate to the local context. Attempts to transplant Brazilian methods directly are unlikely to be successful. However, the Brazilian experience provides useful inspiration and guidance for policymakers in other developing countries.

Prioritising human development objectives within social assistance programmes has been vital. Bolsa Escola was established on the understanding that without strengthening human development, especially among children, income transfers are unlikely to have sustained effects on the households targetted.

Regarding whether the Brazilian experience can potentially inform social policies in African countries, Bolsa Família and the social pensions are more strongly productivist than most existing anti-poverty transfer programmes in Africa. Whereas in sub-Saharan Africa anti-poverty transfer programmes have focussed on households without capacity to work, in Brazil assistance is provided to all households living in poverty, independently of their labour market status. This approach contributes to inclusive growth.



Barrientos, Armando. 2013. ‘The Rise of Social Assistance in Brazil’. Development and Change, 44 (44): 4.

Barrientos, Armando, Dario Debowicz, and Ingrid Woolard. 2014. ‘Antipoverty Transfers and Inclusive Growth in Brazil‘. IRIBA Working Paper, No. 4. Manchester: International Research Initiative on Brazil and Africa. Accessed 5 November 2015.

Borges Sugiyama, N., and W. Hunter. 2013. ‘Whither clientelism? Good governance and Brazil’s Bolsa Família Program’. Comparative Politics, 43–62.

Campello, Tereza and Marcelo C. Neri. 2014. Programa Bolsa Família: Uma década de inclusão e cidadania. Brasìlia: IPEA and MDS. Accessed 5 November 2015.

Jaccoud, L., P.D.E.-M. Hadjab, and J.R. Chaibub. 2010. ‘The consolidation of social assistance in Brazil and its challenges, 1988–2008’. Working Paper, No. 76. Brasìlia: International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth.

Kassouf, A.L., P. Rodrigues de Oliveira, and J.M. de Aquino. 2011. Impact Evaluation of the Brazilian Pension Program Beneficio de Prestacão Continuada (BPC) on Family Welfare. Sao Paulo: Universidade de Sao Paulo.

Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra de Domicílios. 2001. National Household Sample Survey. Rio de Janeiro: Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística.

Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra de Domicílios. 2006. National Household Sample Survey. Rio de Janeiro: Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística.

Soares, F.V., R.P. Ribas, and R.G. Osório. 2010. ‘Evaluating the Impact of Bolsa Família’. Latin American Research Review, 45(2): 173–190.

Souza, P.H.G.F. de. 2011. ‘Poverty, inequality and social policies in Brazil, 1995–2005’. Mimeo. Brasília: Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada.


1. Bolsa Escola provided transfers to households with children in extreme poverty, conditional on children attending school. Bolsa Família provides transfers to households with per capita income below a quarter of the minimum wage, conditional on school attendance and primary health care utilisation.

2. Up-to-date information on the programmes is available here. More detailed information and sources on outcomes can be accessed from the Reference section and the working paper cited in footnote 1. All values are for 2014 (USD PPP 1=BRL1.713).

This article was first published in a 2015 special edition of Policy in Focus, produced by the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth United Nations Development Programme, in partnership with IRIBA.