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01/06/2011

What America can learn from Brazil about fighting poverty

US_states_by_poverty_rate_svg It may seem counter intuitive to give poor families money just for sending their kids to school,  keeping a full time job, and buying healthy foods.  But what if that’s what works?                    

Programs in the United States have long been providing financial assistance to families in the form of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Federal level food stamp programs, to name a few.  Some good has been done, but all too often the result has been a continuation of poverty and its many problems. 

Now New York is reviewing an approach with a better track record:  giving assistance to mothers who commit to keeping their kids in school and healthy. 

Opportunity NYC is is a smaller model of the large scale family grant programs that are currently running in Mexico, Brazil, and Tanzania. Recent reports say that the program is bringing in positive results in developing countries, but here in the U.S. the verdict is still out.

In 2003 22% of families in Brazil lived on $2/day. With the realization that current anti-poverty programs were not helping, Brazil followed Mexico’s lead and put forth an innovative nationwide program to help lift families out of poverty, not just for one day, month or year but for generations. The program is called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant).

Each of the family grant programs have their own program incentives. In Mexico the focus is on education, health and nutrition. Families must keep their children in school and parents must attend workshops on disease prevention and nutrition.

Considering that many children in rural areas of Mexico must quit school in order to work and bring in more money for the families survival, the additional funds from the grant program must make up for the financial strain of losing a working member of the family to school.

The results of the Bolsa Familia program in Brazil have been outstanding.  After six years, just seven percent of families in Brazil were living on $2 a day. 

The cash grants have brought millions of families out of extreme poverty, providing them with the opportunity and economic freedom to send their children to school, to see doctors, and eat nutritious meals.

This is a significantly different approach than the one taken by most anti-poverty programs in the US.  Like many of these programs, TANF is meant to be a short term assist, to help families get “back on their feet.”  The idea that “getting back on their feet” might take years, or a generation, is never seriously considered – families are limited to deadlines when their benefits end.  The idea that a family that doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from might have a harder time making long-term investments in education or health is also never seriously considered. 

The impetus for initiating a program like Bolsa Familia in New York came from the idea that if you are so stressed out and worried about your day to day survival, you cannot even begin to take action towards a more sustainable future. Bloomberg’s initiative, Opportunity NYC sought to ease the immediate burden of having no money to survive so that families can focus on achieving life goals such as education and better work opportunities. The Opportunity project in the United States has been met with critics who claim that it is primarily a bribery program that will have little to no effect on poverty among the 4,800 families involved. A research report published by the MDRC has shown mixed results with very little improvement in educational outcomes, but this is not McDonalds. The program has only been up and running for two years, more time is needed. Two years is certainly not enough time to reshape generational educational, economic and social poverty.

This idea, giving families additional financial support in order to focus on the more intangible aspects of living may be one way that encourages reaching for human potential.

Families on TANF are still living in poverty, making foods stamps and TANF payments stretch out for the end of the month is hard. The idea of providing an additional financial support that will enable families to engage with their children’s education and to connect with community resources rather than spending all their time hustling for that extra $ for the month should be given a chance.

Opportunity NYC ended in August of 2010 and the final evaluation report is expected in 2013. Once the new data comes out, we can decided if providing the incentive of financial security will be successful at ending poverty.

Posted at 05:42 AM in

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