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The politics of conditional cash transfers in Brazil: political competition shaping the agenda-setting

Denilson Coêlho
Universidade de Brasília
Denilson Coêlho
Universidade de Brasília
Open Panel

Abstract

Until the middle of the 1980s in Brazil, poverty relief policies were characterized by federal government centralization, discontinuity, inefficient public spending, and a focus on emergency services such as donating food baskets to the poor. In recent decades, important changes have occurred in how compensatory social programs are conceived and designed. The Constitution approved in 1988, marking the end of decades of military rule, established that a Social Service Statute should introduce national income transfer programs for elderly and disabled people with very low incomes. Local governments began to implement conditional cash transfers to poor families in 1995. Municipal means-test programs, soon followed by state government programs, were influenced by international debates that associated poverty and inequality with low school performance and child labor. By changing the focus of social policy, sub-national governments thus set in place the foundations for a broader reform in Brazil´s social protection system. The success of the policy, the positive view held by international development agencies, and the need to emulate the municipal innovation led the federal government to institute a national minimum income program in 1997. The reasoning advanced by the present study is that the conjunction of three factors was decisive in awakening the State´s interest in this question: Federalist institutions, the actions of political entrepreneurs and political competition. In short, this study analyzes this set of recent changes in contemporary Brazil and the decisive role of the municipalities regarding the definition of agenda-setting of the conditional cash programs.