Inclusive Growth

Brazil’s Bolsa Familia: Reaching the Poor with No Addresses

Researchers examine the lessons learned from Brazil’s Bolsa Familia conditional cash transfer program.

September 21, 2016

Since 2003, 36 million Brazilians have been lifted out of extreme poverty. A significant part of this achievement is credited to the Bolsa Familia program, a conditional cash transfer scheme that provides a monthly cash benefit to poor families who meet required health and education conditionalities. The aim of the Bolsa Familia program is to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty in Brazil. The program currently covers 13.8 million households, or about 48 million people, roughly one-quarter of the Brazilian population.

The Bolsa Familia program is a great example of how to effectively deliver social benefits to the very poor. But consider what this entails: to deliver Bolsa Familia, the central government must register poor families into the program; get the Bolsa Familia card to them so that they can withdraw the cash benefit; regularly update their profiles and household information to make sure they remain eligible for the program; and monitor beneficiary families to ensure they are meeting the health and education conditionalities. In other words, delivering a social program such as Bolsa Familia requires government officials to know how to identify people and to know where they can be found; they need to know where the poorest of the poor live.

Of course, delivering the program to very poor families would be a much simpler task if all of them had a permanent address: a standardized, recognized and permanent indicator of where they live. But this is often not the case among poor households.

For example, anyone who has spent time in Brazil’s favelas knows that there are no addresses, and often no official zip codes. Slums are like mazes. Because the favelas are technically illegal and informal housing settlements, they are essentially off-the-grid. Thus knowing precisely where someone lives means knowing, for instance, that they live in a certain favela in a certain part of the city, perhaps near a lotteria house, down one lane, up another alley, and maybe next to the latrine.

Now consider that many of Brazil’s poorest of the poor – precisely those people the Bolsa Familia is trying to reach – live in such slums and are without a formal address; or that some may be homeless; that many of Brazil’s very poor live in the countryside, hours away from a town or village; or that many of the poorest households live in the Amazon Rim, in the jungles or alongside a stream. When one considers where the poorest of the poor actually live in Brazil, delivering social programs such as Bolsa Familia is a very daunting task.

CadUnico: Finding and Targeting the Hardest to Reach

The backbone of the Bolsa Familia – and of thirty other federal social policy programs – is the Cadastro Unico (CadUnico), a centralized and unified registry of poor families in Brazil. The CadUnico database stores household information, such as family composition and income, for more than forty percent of Brazilian households, or about 80 million people. The CadUnico data, which includes information about where poor families live, is used to determine those families who are eligible for Bolsa Familia and to find and deliver the cash transfer program to them. In other words, the CadUnico has to provide exhaustive and extremely precise data.

But how do the managers of the Bolsa Familia program know where these families live if they do not have an address? How can the CadUnico be precise about where people live without a formal address?

The CadUnico questionnaire accommodates informal or unconventional housing arrangements. In lieu of an address, for instance, respondents are asked what kind of public space they live near, such as a street, an avenue or a river stream. Question 1.17 of the questionnaire asks them to characterize their dwelling, whether it is a house or an abandoned lot. Question 2.02 gives the respondent the option of identifying one’s home as “improvised” and temporary. A series of questions also asks the respondent to provide additional qualitative information about where they live. As a government official from the Ministry of Social Development explains, the CadUnico questionnaire generates important “clues” about where hard-to-reach families live.

Targeted programs such as the Bolsa Familia are often criticized because they overlook eligible or deserving families (called “exclusion errors”). Brazil’s Bolsa Familia shows, however, that not having a permanent or formal address does not mean poor families are excluded from receiving crucial social benefits.

Read more about Brazil’s Bolsa Familia program in this case study by researchers at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. 

Nina Da Nobrega Garcia is a researcher with the Reach Project and a Research Officer at the Global Justice Lab within the Munk School.

Joseph Wong is the Ralph and Roz Halbert Professor of Innovation at the Munk School.