The program, called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) in Brazil, goes by different names in different places. In Mexico, where it first began on a national scale and has been equally successful at reducing poverty, it is Oportunidades. The generic term for the program is conditional cash transfers. The idea is to give regular payments to poor families, in the form of cash or electronic transfers into their bank accounts, if they meet certain requirements. The requirements vary, but many countries employ those used by Mexico: families must keep their children in school and go for regular medical checkups, and mom must attend workshops on subjects like nutrition or disease prevention. The payments almost always go to women, as they are the most likely to spend the money on their families. The elegant idea behind conditional cash transfers is to combat poverty today while breaking the cycle of poverty for tomorrow. [...]
The program fights poverty in two ways. One is straightforward: it gives money to the poor. This works. And no, the money tends not to be stolen or diverted to the better-off. Brazil and Mexico have been very successful at including only the poor. In both countries it has reduced poverty, especially extreme poverty, and has begun to close the inequality gap.
The idea’s other purpose — to give children more education and better health — is longer term and harder to measure. But measured it is — Oportunidades is probably the most-studied social program on the planet. The program has an evaluation unit and publishes all data. There have also been hundreds of studies by independent academics. The research indicates that conditional cash transfer programs in Mexico and Brazil do keep people healthier, and keep kids in school.
The criticism I’ve heard of this sort of program from the hard left is that the money is essentially a small bribe to keep the poor from rising up and affecting real change. That may be true – but it’s hard to argue with with real results.
My biggest concern is the fact that the World Bank is financing all of this in the form of loans. What happens when it’s time for the countries to pay up?
I’d be interested in seeing a comparison of these conditional transfers with the U.S. welfare system.