One in every four Latin Americans is covered by programs such as the Bolsa Família and Oportunidades

July 15, 2013


Welenice Lima, from São Luis, Maranhão, is able to feed and educate her children with the help of Bolsa Família.

Mariana Ceratti / World Bank.

  • 129 million poor people in 18 Latin American countries, including Brazil, are receiving cash in exchange for fulfilling certain obligations, such as sending their children to school and having them vaccinated.
  • In Brazil and in Mexico, these initiatives—known as conditional cash-transfer programs—have helped give girls the majority in the classroom.
  • In Brasília, representatives from several countries showcased how these programs are changing. The initiatives seek to reach more families and help them gain access to the job market.

Maranhão resident Welenice Lima, 28, is a single mother and unemployed. She lives in the state capital of São Luis in a neighborhood where, as she puts it, everything is lacking “especially security and recreation activities.” At home, at least, they have enough to eat, access to healthcare and her children, aged 6 and 7, go to school.

Every month she receives the Bolsa Família allowance from a Ministry of Social Development (MDS) program, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The benefit is paid to 13.8 million families—whose income per person is below R$ 140 a month—under two conditions: the children have to attend school, and all need to visit the doctor regularly.

Brazilians assisted by the Bolsa Família are not alone. 129 million people from 18 countries within Latin America and the Caribbean —nearly a quarter of the population—are covered by similar initiatives.

In Brazil, the number of extremely poor people (about 16 million, according to the federal government) would be 33 percent higher were it not for Bolsa Família. Furthermore, 99 percent of the pregnant women, among participating families, are up-to-date with their prenatal care and school attendance among 97 percent of the children exceeds the required level.

“These programs are the primary instruments for protecting poor families, both because of the coverage and because of the coordination that they promote in every government,” concludes Concepción Steta, a Social Protection Specialist at the World Bank. “They help children and young people to have better nutrition, health, and education than their parents had.”

But at the same time, these programs pose a series of challenges, precisely because of the extent of the coverage and complexity of operations. The most significant being how to get families to use the benefit to shape their future.

Experts agree that the following are important:

  • Increasing the quality of education and health services available to the population;
  • Linking social assistance with the job market;
  • Ensuring that vocational skills meet the needs of employers;
  • Including women, the elderly, the disabled, etc. in those opportunities.

" These programs are the primary instruments for protecting poor families, both because of the coverage and because of the coordination that they promote in every government "

Concepción Steta

Social Protection Specialist at the World Bank

For the countries with the longest running programs—active for at least 10 years—such as Mexico, Brazil, and Chile, bringing all the countries together to learn about conditional cash transfer (CCTs) programs and labor policies, provides an opportunity to exchange ideas and improvements. Last month, representatives met in Brasilia.

Here are a few examples the progress they have made and obstacles they have faced:

Brazil: This country inspired other countries to set up the Cadastro Único, or Single Register, as the primary means of identification for the poor population. Brazil is building 2,100 health centers and implementing full-scale elementary education at 17,500 elementary schools to improve health coverage and education among Bolsa Família participants.

Chile: The country launched the Ingreso Ético Familiar (Ethical Family Payment) system in 2012. The priority is to give the poorest people (especially women, who head 54% of low-income households), access to the labor market. Those who obtain a job will be entitled to a bonus.

Colombia: A re-design of the program Más Familias em Acción (More Families in Action) will make it possible to increase coverage in the poorest regions of the country and provide greater benefits to the indigenous population. The key challenge is to prepare underprivileged young people for the job market, since 27% of them fall into the ranks of the unemployed.

Mexico: Oportunidades (Opportunities), which now reaches 6.5 million families, is being reorganized in order to incorporate another initiative, the Cruzada Nacional contra el Hambre (National Anti-Hunger Crusade). This will allow a further 600,000 families to get support.