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Cash Aid Program Bolsters Lula's Reelection Prospects

Edmundo Rodrigues da Silva and his wife, Ana Lucia, receive cash assistance through the Bolsa Familia program promoted by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Their son Edvan's school attendance records are sent to state officials regularly as part of the program.
Edmundo Rodrigues da Silva and his wife, Ana Lucia, receive cash assistance through the Bolsa Familia program promoted by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Their son Edvan's school attendance records are sent to state officials regularly as part of the program. (Fred Alves - For The Washington Post)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 29, 2006

ALTO DE SANTA HELENA, Brazil, Oct. 28 -- In this sparsely furnished cinder-block house with seven rooms, one tattered love seat and no chairs, the refrigerator doesn't work and the electric stove won't heat up. But the 13-inch television can conjure a picture through its rabbit-ear antenna, and that's what Edmundo Rodrigues da Silva points to when explaining how he'll vote in Brazil's presidential election Sunday.

"The reason I got the television was to keep my kids in the house, instead of watching them go to a neighbor's house to watch their television," said Rodrigues da Silva, a 54-year-old father of seven and a subsistence farmer. "And the reason I was able to get it was President Lula. After he got into office, we got Bolsa Familia."

Bolsa Familia is the cash assistance program that pays more than 11 million low-income families in Brazil about $40 per month in cash if they meet conditions such as ensuring their children regularly attend school and have regular health checkups and vaccinations. The assistance was enough for Rodrigues da Silva to afford his first television set, and it has been instrumental in helping President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva overcome corruption scandals and build a lead of more than 20 points in opinion polls heading into the runoff against former Sao Paulo state governor Geraldo Alckmin.

Such "conditional cash transfer" aid programs have spread throughout Latin America in recent years and have recently been exported to the United States, where New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg this month announced that his city would adopt a version. Like most of the other examples, Brazil's program is popular among voters, and Lula has promoted Bolsa Familia as the cornerstone of his first term. Even Alckmin has used the program as a campaign tool -- he has tried to remind voters that his party launched an early version of the program during the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the 1990s.

But the poor strongly associate the program with Lula, who poured billions into it, and surveys indicate that support for Lula among the two-thirds of the population that lives on less than $500 per month is powering his reelection hopes. Even though Alckmin has a strong advantage among voters in high income brackets, Lula is expected to gain 63 percent of total valid votes versus 36.8 percent for Alckmin, according to a poll released this week by the firm CNT/Sensus.

Lula, 61, who achieved national prominence as a union leader, narrowly failed to win the election outright during a first-round vote Oct. 1, which came in the wake of allegations that his aides tried to buy incriminating information about his opponents with briefcases full of cash. The scandal has quieted, with Lula promising to investigate and punish those involved.

During the campaign's final televised debate Friday night, Lula painted Alckmin as the candidate who favors the rich and would sell off state companies, while continuing to tout Bolsa Familia as his signature program. Lula has been following the formula for weeks, and political analysts said it has helped him comfortably pad his lead.

"The Bolsa Familia program is probably the most successful social program in Brazil's history, and it's also very different from the programs of the past," said Rogerio Schmitt, a political analyst in Sao Paulo. "Instead of just giving money to the poor, this has strings attached. So the idea is that the requirements will help make sure that in the future, the children of the families won't need the program."

Skeptics contend that the cash assistance programs divert focus in developing countries from making structural reforms in education and the economy -- changes that many analysts say Brazil's next president will be pressured to address. And because the proliferation of such programs is so recent -- Mexico launched its pioneering Opportunidades program in 1997 -- experts say it is too soon to make definitive judgments about long-term benefits.

In this village of about 190 families, local officials say that school attendance is up, child labor down and health care more consistent. Rodrigues da Silva's wife, Ana Lucia, keeps her children's vaccination cards stashed in the wooden box above the basin outside where she scrubs laundry. Their 8-year-old son, Edvan, walks with his mom each month to a health clinic to get weighed and briefly examined. The teacher at his school sends attendance cards to a government office every three months. If a student's attendance is below 85 percent and he or she doesn't have a valid excuse, the parents' benefits can be pulled.

But obvious problems persist here. If a chair in the school breaks, for example, the students have to wait until the next school year to get a replacement, Rodrigues da Silva said. Finding qualified teachers willing to come to a poverty-racked rural area is just as difficult as it always has been, he said.

"It's clear that more children are attending school, for example, but it's not clear that they are learning more," said Eduardo Lora, a principal adviser with the research department of the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington who has analyzed conditional cash transfer programs in Latin America. "The main constraint is the quality of the schools. But when people say that the money would be better spent to improve education, it's very difficult because we don't know of simple ways to improve education."

Even though Lula's government more than doubled social spending during his term, to about $8 billion last year, the Bolsa Familia program is a small part of the federal budget in a country of 185 million where most workers pay about 36 percent of their income in taxes, Lora said. The cost falls in line with most of the other similar conditional cash aid programs in Latin America -- about 0.3 percent of a country's gross domestic product, Lora said.

Ramon Marcelo da Silva coordinates the Bolsa Familia program for 16 towns in this pocket of Minas Gerais state, overseeing benefits for about 95,000 people -- about half of the region's total population. He said that since he began two years ago, he has repeatedly heard a familiar complaint of critics of welfare programs: You shouldn't give people fish, but instead, teach them to fish.

"The problem is that in some rivers there is nothing to fish," Marcelo da Silva said. "There's just nothing there."

Besides the TV, the Rodrigues da Silva family uses its aid money to buy school supplies and food. In one of the house's bare rooms, tubes of toothpaste and bars of soap sit on a windowsill, where one glass pane has been replaced by a piece of cardboard. Against one cracked wall is a small stack of rice, beans, sunflower seeds, paraffin and olive oil. All of it was bought with money from the Bolsa Familia program. Ana Lucia said it is enough to turn the vegetables, fruits and herbs the family grows outside the house into full meals.

She estimated that the vast majority of her neighbors -- "probably 99 percent" -- also received payments from Bolsa Familia, which is available to families with per capita incomes less than about $55 per month. And in the village, she and her husband said they knew of only three people who planned to vote for Alckmin instead of Lula. One reason, they said, is that they hope Lula will increase the payments distributed under the program.

"Now I want to buy furniture," Ana Lucia said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company