The expansion of the programs throughout the world has caused the press to take notice. In a op-ed piece in the New York Times, writer Tina Rosenberg tells us why conditional cash transfers could be the next great idea.
In Mexico, Oportunidades today covers 5.8 million families, about 30 percent of the population. An Oportunidades family with a child in primary school and a child in middle school that meets all its responsibilities can get a total of about $123 a month in grants. Students can also get money for school supplies, and children who finish high school in a timely fashion get a one-time payment of $330.
Bolsa Familia, which has similar requirements, is even bigger. Brazil’s conditional cash transfer programs were begun before the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but he consolidated various programs and expanded it. It now covers about 50 million Brazilians, about a quarter of the country. It pays a monthly stipend of about $13 to poor families for each child 15 or younger who is attending school, up to three children. Families can get additional payments of $19 a month for each child of 16 or 17 still in school, up to two children. Families that live in extreme poverty get a basic benefit of about $40, with no conditions.
Do these sums seem heartbreakingly small? They are. But a family living in extreme poverty in Brazil doubles its income when it gets the basic benefit. It has long been clear that Bolsa Familia has reduced poverty in Brazil. But research has only recently revealed its role in enabling Brazil to reduce economic inequality.
The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are working with individual governments to spread these programs around the globe, providing technical help and loans. Conditional cash transfer programs are now found in 14 countries in Latin America and some 26 other countries, according to the World Bank. (One of the programs was in New York City — a small, privately-financed pilot program called Opportunity NYC. A preliminary evaluation showed mixed success, but it is too soon to draw conclusions.) Each program is tailored to local conditions. Some in Latin America, for example, emphasize nutrition. One in Tanzania is experimenting with conditioning payments on an entire community’s behavior.
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.