The real culprit behind the Bolsa Família rumor – By Gregory Duff Morton

Two weeks before the series of demonstrations that erupted across the country, the streets were filled with another 900,000 people also anxious, people who also expressed their fears and desires and thus questioned the direction of the country. Many of them did not have Facebook and were not young; they came from the poorest part of the Brazilian population. They took to the streets motivated by a rumor about the end of the Bolsa Familia program, and thus decided to seek the monthly benefit right away. Their collective act was recognized not as a political gesture, but as a mere riot. However, these, no less than those, spoke of the limits and barriers of the current moment.

Bolsa Família Program

In June 2013, the world heard the startling voices of an unexpected movement. Thousands of people entered the main avenues in Brazil to reveal the limits and barriers of the development model in force today. The most visible protagonists of that moment were students and young people connected by Facebook, and the movement they built was immediately received as a political gesture.

Two weeks earlier, the streets were filled with another 900,000 people who were also anxious, people who were also expressing their fears and desires and thus questioning the direction of the country. Many of them did not have Facebook and were not young; they came from the poorest part of the Brazilian population. They took to the streets motivated by a rumor about the end of the Bolsa Familia program, and thus decided to seek the monthly benefit right away. Their collective act was recognized not as a political gesture, but as a mere riot. However, these, no less than those, spoke of the limits and barriers of the current moment. They wanted to say something.

And when I try to hear what they were saying, I remember my conversation with Jaira.

“It’s not something…” Jaira told me that sentence and stopped. For a moment, in the dry air of the Bahian hinterland, there was silence. Finally she found the right word and added: “…reliable.”

It’s not reliable. It was 2012, and Jaira was trying to explain the realities of Bolsa Família to me. I’m an anthropology student, foreigner. When I started living in the rural village where Jaira also lives, the local women wanted to teach me something. They wanted to indicate, even before the fact, who was the real culprit in the rumor about Bolsa Família in May 2013. The culprit would not be a politician or a bank manager.

It would be something else.

It would be the structure of a social program that, every day, with a thousand small humiliations, symbolically communicates to its beneficiaries: Bolsa Família is not something to be trusted. You can’t count on this money.

It is important to say, at first, that Bolsa Família transformed Jaira’s life. In rural areas, you can physically see the difference between young people who were born before Bolsa Família and those who were born later.

The improvement in nutrition (among many other factors) is clear. My research has shown that the money, in the vast majority of cases, is used to spend on food, clothing, and lodging. In other words, this resource has a fundamental role in the progress of 13.8 million families, which represents a human success of world relevance. The Brazilian program is the largest conditional cash transfer program in the world, and the world is watching; it was Bolsa Família, precisely, that brought me to Brazil to do research.

But in order for us to appreciate that success, we need to recognize it as still incomplete. Its limits became evident on May 18, when a rumor spread that the program would be cancelled. About 900,000 beneficiaries in 13 states rushed to the payment points, causing riots, panic, cash flow exhaustion and, shortly thereafter, a partisan controversy over the source of the problem. According to information from Caixa Econômica Federal, on May 17, the bank skipped the normal calendar, in which payment is made in a staggered manner, and released the monthly funds for all beneficiaries in the country at the same time.

Here is the paradox. How could an increase in the availability of money, an advance payment, turn into a powerful rumor about the cancellation of the program?

The answer to this question reveals a very important reality about Bolsa Família. Thousands of people passed the rumor from neighbor to neighbor, in backyards and gardens, through public phone calls and church conversations, and these people, even communicating incorrect information, gave voice to a truth. They demonstrated what Antônio Gramsci called “common sense,” that is, the ability of the masses to express social truth in an unorthodox way. And the truth is: Bolsa Família is a social program, not a right.

This truth can be heard in what four neighbors of Jaira told me, in four different conversations, in 2012:

“Bolsa Família is not a sure thing that– today you have it, tomorrow– you no longer know if you have it.”

“The day you cut it, it will be general […] This money is not for life.”

“I think you have to be prepared, that it’s not something that will last forever […] and you don’t even know if you’ll be getting paid for a lifetime […] the government cuts it.”

“Receive until the day they want […], no one knows if it’s for life.”

Bolsa Família é um Programa Social e não um Direito

The instability of Bolsa Família is a fact experienced by these rural beneficiaries. They notice it right away at registration. Access to the benefit is not guaranteed, even for those who fit the program’s criteria, and Jaira’s neighbors tend to wait a long time to receive the first payment—three months at least and, in some families I know, up to four years.

(In the cold words of the MDS website, “the Ministry of Social Development and Fight against Hunger automatically selects the families that will be included in the PBF. However, registration does not imply the immediate entry of families into the Program and receipt of the benefit.”)

In the village where Jaira lives, when I started my research at the end of 2011, almost everyone had already made several trips to the city hall to apply for Bolsa Família, but 20.5% of eligible households received nothing.

Even receiving the money does not bring security. Many of Jaira’s neighbors have had their appeal blocked, usually because of bureaucratic and sometimes unexplained inconveniences, for three or four or even eleven months.

These blockages caused food crises for the children, but in a place where a bus ticket to reach the city hall costs the equivalent of what a worker earns in a day’s work in the field, it was difficult to resolve them. When beneficiaries managed to unlock Bolsa Família, they did not receive late payment.

Beneficiaries clearly understand the message that program managers send. Mireya Súarez and Marlene Libardoni, in their research on Bolsa Família, heard this message from a municipal manager:

“We don’t know how long it will last, that it is a program that has started and that it may end. Therefore, families have to prepare to detach from that.”

These managers, however, only communicate an uncertainty that has its origins in the political structure of Bolsa Família. Waiting lists, blocks, lack of security about the future: everything comes from the root of the program.

All this happens because Bolsa Família is not a right — it is a social program. The decision to structure Bolsa Família as an optional government program – that is, as a one-off and impermanent intervention – was a political determination.

Senator Suplicy defended an alternative vision, in which Bolsa Família would be the first step in the creation of a universal basic income, but his tireless efforts had the only result of a law of symbolic value and today ignored.

Bolsa Família, as a social program, broke with the trajectory of the Brazilian Welfare State, a trajectory marked by the gradual increase in the portion of the population that enjoyed the right to a cash transfer: the labor rights of the Vargas era , the expansion of pensions for rural farmers in 1963, and, as a result of redemocratization, the creation in 1993 of the Continuous Cash Benefit for elderly or disabled people.

It was not by chance that the Organic Law on Social Assistance spoke, in 1993, of the “guarantee of social rights,” when, ten years later, the decree creating the Bolsa Família aimed at “stimulating the sustained emancipation of families living in situations of poverty and extreme poverty.”

Between “ensure” and “encourage,” between 1993 and 2004, a whole transformation took place in the State. Flexibility, investment, and self-entrepreneurship became the key words, and the structure of Bolsa Família demonstrates how neither Lula nor Dilma managed to break with this neoliberal foundation. In the world of permanent impermanence, the role of government is to achieve goals, not guarantee rights.

Family Allowance

In the eyes of those receiving Bolsa Família, if money is not a right, what is it? In the words of a neighbor of Jaira, it is “a great privilege.” That is, the benefit is a gift that cannot be counted on.

Of course, not all beneficiaries see the program that way. But the logic of “privilege” has been reinforced with successive waves of unsafe and sometimes transient increases. While I was living in the village, we heard about Bolsa Verde, Brasil Carinhoso, Bolsa Nutriz and Bolsa Gestante, and Bolsa Estiagem, only a few of which arrived and only for a few people, usually without explanation and always without guarantee.

It is understandable, therefore, why some beneficiaries interpreted the early arrival of the money, on May 17th, as a “gift from Dilma” for Mother’s Day. It is also understood, in a more complex movement, the reasoning that led the beneficiaries to conclude that this gift also signaled the end of the program.

We can recall here the thoughts of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, a great theorist of the gift phenomenon. The gift, for Mauss, is an apparently voluntary, changeable phenomenon, and never subject to exact accounting. In various human cultures, the gift never fully belongs to its recipient; a part always seeks to return to the giver. The act of giving asks for but does not guarantee a return, and the return asks for another gift, thus prolonging the bond…

Like perfect Maussians, the beneficiaries try to repay the gift of Bolsa Família with the counter-gift of conditionalities (school attendance and vaccines), but, faced with bureaucratic blockages and uncertainty about the future of the program, the counter-gift is not able to fully regularize the flow of money. This gift is unstable.

Mauss himself considered that social benefits were gifts, and, writing in the year 1925, he has already highlighted the insufficiency of unstable benefits that the State does not guarantee. Apparently, many Bolsa Família beneficiaries agree with him. In 2012, there were already rumors, in the backlands of Bahia, about the end of Bolsa Família, as the future of an unguaranteed program. It seemed clear that a gift like Bolsa Família could not remain permanently in the hands of the poor.

And in May 2013, in the eyes of many beneficiaries, it looked like that prophecy was coming true. When the value of the gift suddenly increases, Mauss teaches us, so does the recipient’s inability to repay it. Therefore, an increase in the gift implies a certain aggressiveness, a move that breaks the rhythm of gift and counter-gift, and which aims to make the counter-gift impossible and thus end the cycle of exchanges. The gesture of delivering the Bolsa Família before its time would also be the gesture of ending the process.

There was a rumor on May 18, among people hurrying to withdraw their benefits, that the government needed money to host the Pope’s visit or the Confederations Cup. Janúbia Silva Alves, 29, explained the logic in an interview given to Folha de S. Paulo(19/5):

“They are telling my community that the government will pay for the next three months until the end of Sunday and would cancel everything. My neighbor, who has already taken her money, said the government wants to save money to be able to make the parties for the pope .”

The arguments about the Pope and the Cup exemplify the common sense. An unguaranteed benefit, a mere social program, always competes with the spectacular priorities of the developmental state. And, as in the potlatch of the Kwakiutl society, Bolsa Família would end, said the rumor, with big parties marked by an extraordinary gift — 3 months of benefit! — and impossible to repay.

It is worth thinking, in addition to the panic in May, of the negative effects produced by the unstable donation dynamic that has characterized the government’s policy towards Bolsa Família to date. Symbolically and legally, the money never fully belongs to the beneficiary. It’s money that can disappear at any time. The “citizenship” it generates will, therefore, also be an incomplete citizenship. Jaira’s neighbors cannot make big decisions – moving house, starting a small business, taking a long-term loan – based on the certainty that Bolsa Família will remain. Worse still, the unstable gift reinforces the aspect of domination in the beneficiary-State relationship, as the arbitrariness that accompanies this benefit highlights the subject’s inability to influence the decisions that most affect his life.

This inequality is complementing another: the hierarchy between “work” (male activity, according to the stereotype) and efforts at home. Introducing Bolsa Família as a one-off investment in human capital, as an aid for consumption, as an unstable gift, the program’s architects manage to separate it from the salary, the classic money of man. Such symbolism has been hiding an alternative view: Bolsa Família could be seen as the salary for domestic work. In this case, the most neglected, but most essential works for the reproduction of society would be valued. The Bolsa Família would be understood, therefore, as an obligation of the State, as remuneration that the recipient earns and, justly, can demand. A source of true human wealth would be recognized.

Bolsa Família has changed Brazil, and it is time to change the concept we have of Bolsa Família. On May 18th and 19th, a few days before the great movement of young people, thousands of beneficiaries passed a rumor from door to door, from window to window, and thus left their status as objects of social planning to become, for a moment , protagonists in public discourse. With eloquent voices, they revealed the instabilities and shortcomings of the current model and the urgency of a better vision.

Originally published in BRASIL DE FATO

Gregory Duff Morton

Gregory Duff Morton is lecturer in Anthropology and Social Work at the University of Chicago, Master of Anthropology and Master of Social Work from the University of Chicago, and Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology and Social Work at the same university.

Written by Feitosa-Santana

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