‘Bolsa Familia’ Boosts Families in Brazil

Natasha Borges Sugiyama, assistant professor of political science

‘Bolsa Familia’ Boosts Families in Brazil

With UWM support, Natasha Sugiyama is studying the political impact of a Brazilian program that is improving the lives of the poor. Such studies are vital in increasing global understanding of politics and social policy, she says.

Can Brazil’s local governments run a federal income-supplement program without political interference?

Yes, they can, says Natasha Borges Sugiyama, a UWM assistant professor of political science who has been studying the political impact of Brazil’s “Bolsa Família” (Family Grant), a program designed to alleviate poverty and develop human potential. The program gives stipends to mothers in exchange for making sure their children go to school and get regular medical checkups and immunizations.

Since its inception in 2003, the Bolsa Família program has had a real impact on children and families living in poverty, says Sugiyama. “In much of Latin America, including Brazil, large segments of the population live in poverty and lack the resources to meet their most basic needs. Conditional cash-transfer programs are an example of a public-policy strategy with the potential to elevate living standards for millions of families,” she says.

Sugiyama, of Brazilian-American descent, spent time in Brazil as a child and just published a book on good government practices there. She was interested in whether the Bolsa Família program was working, since many local politicians have traditionally used federal funds to buy votes.

Her research in three northeastern Brazilian cities showed that in the case of Bolsa Família, built-in safeguards – like transparency in operation – against political interference have worked. “It’s a limited sample, but an exciting finding. It’s important because the beneficiaries need to feel this program is a social right,” not a political favor.

Her research and that of others has shown that Bolsa Família is succeeding in its goals of improving health care and education for families living in extreme poverty.

Bolsa Família is having other impacts that Sugiyama plans to explore and write about – empowering women and encouraging poor people to acquire important legal documents like birth certificates that are needed for the program. Bolsa Família also appears to be helping the poor in the areas she studied feel a sense of political efficacy.

“It is interesting to see how one social policy aimed at basic needs has had this ripple effect on people’s lives.”