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Brazil's Bolsa Familia: a double-edged sword?

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In common with most Latin American countries, as governments embrace safety nets to attack poverty, conditional cash transfer (CCT) programmes have become part of mainstream social policy in Brazil. Under president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995–2002), and especially since Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office in 2003, targeted assistance in education, health and nutrition, now united under Bolsa Família, have expanded rapidly to benefit forty-four million (24 per cent of the total population), absorbing almost two-fifths of the social assistance budget earmarked for the poorest sectors. Despite its operational problems, Bolsa Família appears to have been effective in providing short-term relief to some of the most deprived groups in Brazil. Yet it could prove to be a double-edged sword. There is a risk that, due to its popularity among both the poor and Brazil's politicians, Bolsa Família could greatly increase patronage in the distribution of economic and social benefits and induce a strong dependence on government handouts. There are also early signs that it may be contributing to a reduction in social spending in key sectors such as education, housing and basic sanitation, possibly undermining the country's future social and economic development.

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