What do we need public money for?: Poverty and Food Insecurity in Brazil

Brazil-Flag-Wallpaper-HD1-1024x576Brazil is famous for Carnival, music, and obviously soccer! Who would imagine us holding a World Cup? So, let’s make it unforgettable! Let’s spend the most we can to show the rest of the world what we are really capable of.

And YES, we have done it! After 12 stadiums, in total Brazil has spent half of the nation’s yearly educational budget on this World Cup or 25% of the yearly health budget (approximately US$11 Billion). Although the president said it won’t affect education or health programs – we Brazilians doubt it. Widespread protests have wracked Brazil for at least the past year, growing in intensity as the World Cup approached. Despite the success of the games, a strong argument can be made that these millions of dollars spent on World Cup preparations should have been spent on social programs instead.

A national plan to end hunger

Speaking of social programs, Brazil claims to be in a leader in alleviating poverty, but there is still room for improvement.

Brazil is one of the most unequal societies on the planet, having 27 million people living in extreme poverty (less than $ 1.25/day) in 2005. In order to eradicate hunger, extreme poverty, and social exclusion, in 2003 Brazil launched the “Zero Hunger Program” (Programa Fome Zero) with a wide objective under its 4 axes – 1. food accessibility, 2. strengthening family farming, 3. income generation, and 4. articulation, mobilization and social control (loose translation).  Here is what you need to know – within each broad area there are specific actions, often programs, that are intended to push the goals of the axes forward.

To keep things interesting, I will highlight just one or two actions from the axes mentioned above, focusing on the ones I find most intriguing and that could be a model for the US.  Under axis 1, there are 14 actions; the Family Grant Program (Programa Bolsa Família) is the most famous and important one because it has brought together, through a single application form, Educational, Health and Social Assistance Programs., This program transfers monthly cash aid to families living in poverty to assist with providing food, clothes or any special need for the entire family. But it’s not just handing money to people, they also have to give back to the nation by meeting requirements intended to improve health nationwide as well as bolster the Brazilian economy.  This reciprocity can be called, as it is in Portuguese, “conditionalities”.

Under the health conditionalities, pregnant women must attend prenatal care appointments and pregnant and lactating women must participate in educational activities about breastfeeding and healthy eating, much like WIC in the United States. Those responsible for a child under 7 years must keep his/her up–to-date with immunizations and take the child to health facilities to monitor his/her nutritional status and development.

Under the education conditionalities, children and adolescents 6-15 years old must be enrolled in school, attending at least 85% of the time. Adolescents ages 16 and 17 must attend a minimum of 75% of days each month.  Parents must inform the school in cases of student non-attendance, present proper justification for it, and report changes of school.

By meeting these conditionalities, families contribute to the development of human capital in the long run by trying to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, enabling the nation to counter the criticism of being a “welfare state”. At the same time, the program pushes the government to provide higher quality education, health and social services.

A second example, also under the first axis, is the School Meal Program, which is universal and free for all public schools – something the U.S. is struggling to achieve. This axis also includes a surveillance system, which monitors nutritional status of the population and describes trends in health in order to build indicators for the evaluation of public policies.

Axis 2, strengthening family farming, has four components and the most important is the Food Acquisition Program, which addresses two ends of the problem: family farmers who struggle with selling the yield from small production and people facing food insecurity who struggle with buying food. The products purchased through the Food Acquisition Program are also distributed in school meals, hospitals and charities, much the way commodities are in the U.S.  However, the Food Acquisition Program buys only from small family farmers.

Under axis 3, income generation, one action caught my attention: Social and Professional Qualification. I was reminded of this national action because a very similar subject was the theme of a recent talk by one of the Witnesses to Hunger.  She movingly spoke about the need for improving workforce training and education programs and expanding access to quality, affordable child care so that low-income people can acquire professional qualifications in order to achieve their goals of becoming self-sufficient while working rewarding and meaningful jobs.

Finally, axis 4, articulation, mobilization and social control, has the Referral Center for Social Assistance, which provides basic social network protection in geographic areas with the highest social vulnerability. As an example, the Referral Center coordinates professional qualification with the availability of jobs, as a mean of productive inclusion, seeking better conditions for families.

Along with these actions, Brazil has been increasing annually the minimum wage, leading the country into a new development dynamic due to new work and income opportunities.  The impact of a change like this has been the subject of hot debate here in the U.S.; in Brazil we have seen some positive consequences, such as reduced income inequality.

But reality is not all flowers; the latest Brazilian national data on Food Insecurity (PNDS, 2006), showed 14.5 percent of households were food insecure, meaning that adults (9.7%) and children (4.8%) were hungry at least once in the three months prior to the survey because they lacked enough money to afford adequate meals. By contrast, the comparable Food Insecurity rate in U.S. households among adults and children was 14.5 percent in 2012 and reflects hardships that occurred in the year (vs. 3 months in Brazil) prior to the survey.

Although Brazilian figures are somewhat outdated, both Brazilian and American numbers refer to families’ ability to secure adequate nutritious food, which has been disrupted by lack of money. This situation impacts families mentally, physically and emotionally.

Some things different, some things the same

In contrast with Brazil, in the U.S., each component of the overall problem is being confronted separately. Poverty and hunger are addressed by several different social programs, such as the national food assistance programs (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP; the Child Nutrition Programs; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and others), and a separate cash assistance program (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families — TANF). But in order to effectively help families suffering with the lack of food, shouldn’t all these social policies be streamlined?  Shouldn’t food assistance be in line with raising the minimum wage, creating jobs, workforce training to raise career opportunities, day care for children, and continuing to offer cash transfer benefits? Wouldn’t having all these programs integrated be more successful in enabling families to accomplish a better life standard, as intended by Brazil’s Zero Hunger Program?

In both countries the government has been struggling to balance social and private sector interests. On one hand they support the domestic hunger safety net, but on the other hand they cut benefits either in value or in quotas, as a “trading currency” to win approval of other policies.

Like Brazil, the United States has to maintain programs that alleviate poverty, but what remains unclear is whether both countries are moving towards a policy of combating poverty at its roots or a set of specific emergency strategies.

Although poverty is being measured in different ways in Brazil and the U.S., we understand that cash transfer programs are only palliative and emergency policies that seek to minimize human suffering, while more profound systemic changes haven’t been accomplished yet, such as improving the quality of education, job training, and a minimum wage consistent with acceptable standards of human dignity. But after 11 billion dollars, stadiums and airports will be the World Cup’s most visible legacy! The question is: can we feed people with soccer balls and airplanes?