Over the past decade, Brazil has lifted 20 million people out of poverty through a mix of well-funded social programs and careful economic stewardship, creating a burgeoning consumer class that has helped make the country the world’s seventh-largest economy.
Now, what Rousseff called her administration’s “most obstinate fight” will be to eradicate extreme poverty, which affects more than 16 million Brazilians, by 2014. “There is still poverty that shames our country and prevents our full affirmation as a developed people,” Rousseff, 63, said at her Jan. 1 inauguration, as she succeeded her mentor, the popular Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Government officials say that in the coming weeks Rousseff will lay out details of a broad initiative, “Brazil Without Poverty,” which will expand health, education and cash-transfer programs and direct increased development aid to poverty-stricken regions.
“These are strategic decisions for redistributing wealth, promoting big works in regions where poverty was concentrated,” Tereza Campello, minister of social development, said in an interview.
The bulk of the assistance will be funneled to the vast north, much of it Amazonia, and the densely populated northeast, regions that are home to 75 percent of the Brazilians who fall below the extreme-poverty line.
It is in the northeast that poverty’s reach has been most extensive and intractable, which historians attribute to arid conditions and the legacy of slavery. The nine northeastern states contain 27 percent of Brazil’s about 200 million people but account for 13 percent of its economic growth, said Paulo Guimaraes, regional chief of BNDES, Brazil’s development bank. In contrast, the southeast, rich in industry, churns out 56 percent of the country’s economic output with just 41 percent of the population.
Guimaraes said the poverty is also deeply entrenched, stretching from isolated peasant hamlets in the interior to the slums of the region’s bustling cities.
“Some people here don’t even have an ID card,” Guimaraes said. “They are invisible.”
Mara Maria da Silva, 58, is among the poorest, living in a squatter community. Her home is a shack on a hillside in Cabo de Santo Agostinho, sandwiched between the vast Suape port and industrial park and Recife, the capital of Pernambuco state. She laments her predicament but worries most about children growing up in abject poverty, using drugs and sleeping in the open air.