For decades Brazil was known as one of the most unequal countries in the world. The vast slums that shape its city landscapes have become almost emblematic of a deep poverty and ingrained inequality that contradicts Brazil’s ambitions of growth and modernity. Brazil is one of the richest countries in Latin America, with its economy amongst the ten largest in the world, in terms of social inequality, the country ranks a meagre twelfth globally.
Whilst the economic boom of the past decade led to a significant decrease in the country’s poverty rates, poverty and inequality are still a serious problem and one of the major challenges faced by the government heading into the New Year.
Since the coming to power of Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party -PT) in 2003, both his former administration and President Rousseff’s current administration have been credited with lifting 28 million people out of extreme poverty and allowing 36 million to enter the middle class, in a country of almost 200 million.
A report from the World Bank indicates poverty has fallen markedly, from 21% of the population in 2003 to 11% in 2009 with numbers continuing to fall. The Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE) also reported that the richest 20 percent of Brazilians saw a decrease in their share of wealth over the past decade, whilst the poorest 20 percent, on the other hand, increased their share of wealth from 2.6 to 3.5 percent during the same period.
In June last 2011, President Rousseff launched a multi-billion dollar social welfare program called ‘Brazil Sem Miséria’ (Brazil Without Misery) in response to the IBGE’s poverty figures. Its aim is to eradicate extreme poverty in Brazil by 2014.The ‘Brazil Without Misery’ programme plans to extend the reach of the Bolsa Familia, a cash transfer program started by President Lula, and brings together a host of schemes targeting health, education and infrastructure under one umbrella. Rousseff’s goal is to include a further 320,000 people by the end of the year.
The government has enacted the “Busca Ativa” (or “Active Search”) strategy to ensure that benefits reach families who may not yet have received them due to geographical isolation, lack of information and administrative shortcomings. The Minister for Social Development, Tereza Campello, highlighted the ‘need to change the mind-set that it is up to a poor and marginalized person to come to the state, and ensure that the state reaches out to them.’
Though critics have expressed doubts concerning the ability of such policies to help generate income or employment, arguing that it is paternalistic in principal and increases dependency, studies by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and IBGE reveal that Brazil has made a significant contribution to increasing the poor’s income and reducing social inequality through such programmes over the past decade.
As a result, many argue that programmes such as Bolsa Familia exemplify an innovative initiative at combating poverty and has been described by The Economist as an “anti-poverty scheme invented in Latin America which is winning converts worldwide”.
Government plans for 2013 and beyond show an increase in government spending in areas such as social welfare, health, and education. .As part of the final report on the 2013 budget, the Rousseff administration recently announced plans to increase the proposed minimum wage by R$4 to R$674.96 (US$331) per month, up from the R$622 (US$305) rate in 2012. Another example is the Plano Nacional da Educação (National Plan of Education), approved in October 2012, it aims to increase government spending on education to 10% of the GDP over the next 10 years.
In addition to combatting poverty, the government has increased efforts at targeting racial and income inequality in Brazil. Last year the Brazilian Senate approved a bill reserving half of the places in the country’s prestigious federal universities to state school students.
The bill also sets out that a quota of 12.5% of university places are to be reserved for black and indigenous students, a measure which will develop further in 2013 since President Rousseff ‘s announced plans for percentage to grow steadily until it reaches 50% by 2026. In states such as Bahía with the greatest percentage of black population, the criteria will favour the afro-descendants whilst the indigenous will be most benefited in the Amazon states where their population is higher.
Studies have consistently highlighted that Afro-descendants and indigenous people are far more likely to live in poverty, die at a younger age, suffer police abuse, and earn significantly less than whites no matter their level of education or position in society. Policies such as these reflect Brazil’s increasing acknowledge that inequality can no longer be attributed solely to economic factors and whilst racially specific affirmative action measures have sparked controversial debate across the country, it has also propelled the long overlooked issue of racial inequality in Brazil to the national arena and will continue to do so in 2013.
Though Brazil remains a country of stark contrasts, its strides against poverty and inequality cannot be underestimated. It can be argued that until recently the focus in Brazil has always been on reducing poverty rather than combating income and social inequality overall, however, an emphasis on distribution, creating more job opportunities, investing in structural education systems and addressing discrimination are being implemented to ensure more equality in the future.
What is evident so far is that although Brazil has recently suffered a sluggish economic performance statistics increasingly show that it has seen a dramatic improvement to living standards and a decline in poverty, both of which are indications that Brazil is slowly beginning to win its battle against its deeply entrenched inequality.