BRASILIA (Reuters) – Tatiana Araujo de Sirqueira, a 33-year-old single mother of six, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are nearly neighbors. But they inhabit different universes.
Sirqueira lives in a landfill less than a mile from Planalto’s presidential palace in Brasilia, along with 36 other families, and raises money by recycling trash.
He is one of 40 million or more “invisible” Brazilians, a term coined by Economy Minister Paulo Guedes for the unemployed who have largely flown under the radar of the government – and Brazilian society.
“I live next to the president. I see him and his security pass by here every day, ”he said one hot, dusty afternoon outside his improvised shack. “How can he pass here every day and not see the family here?”
Last year, however, Sirqueira was nowhere to be seen. From April to December, he and some 66 million other Brazilians received the government’s most generous cash transfer program, emergency assistance to help the most vulnerable through the pandemic.
That nearly $ 60 billion jump in basic income is softening the economic hit from the coronavirus, boosting Bolsonaro’s popularity and beating poverty – but expiring at the end of 2020 unravels many of those effects.
Sirqueira now relies on a pre-existing ‘Bolsa Familia’ social benefit of up to 205 reais ($ 36) a month, about a third of last year’s emergency assistance, missing out on a second, smaller round of cash transfer programs that started in April.
“They said I no longer met the criteria so I could no longer be part of the program. My life has become much more difficult since then, with six children to raise, ”he said.
Millions of Brazilians like him were briefly lifted out of poverty only to be thrown back. The national poverty rate fell suddenly to 4.5% in August from nearly 11% in early 2020, according to the calculations of the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
However, the Rio de Janeiro-based think tank estimates that 12.8% of Brazil’s population – some 27 million people – now live below the poverty line of 246 reais a month, the most since the streak began a decade ago.
Graph: Brazil poverty rate – FGV –
The economic impact of the aid was offset by its political blow, reversing Bolsonaro’s dwindling popularity as the first wave of COVID-19 hit and winning a record agreement among the country’s poorer classes and regions, which have since withdrawn.
Pollster Datafolha showed his disapproval of Bolsonaro in Brazil’s poorer northeast exceeded his approval by 16 percentage points in April 2020, when the cash transfers began.
That gap narrowed to just two points in August, last month before the maximum salary of 600 reais was halved. By January, the gap had recovered to 15 points, basically back to square one.
Overseeing next year’s presidential election, Bolsonaro is eager to extend the program, even if it wreaks havoc on public finances, destabilizes financial markets and irks Guedes.
The new aid package, which begins in April, will provide quarterly transfers of an average of 250 reais to a small group of informal workers.
Its 42 billion reais price is a fraction of the 322 billion reais ($ 58 billion) bill for aid last year, which was nearly 4.5% of gross domestic product.
The simpler program has alleviated some of the concerns over the trajectory of Brazil’s public debt, but also reduced the impact on poverty and inequality levels.
Joao Saboia, professor emeritus at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said even with the next cash transfer, poverty rates would remain high.
“The prospects for 2021 are very bad – vaccinations are slow, the economy is stagnating, unemployment is rising and poverty is high,” said Saboia.
For Sirqueira, a single mother of six, it may have been worse.
Local authorities are pushing to relocate his family to a satellite town outside the capital. She has resisted their efforts, worried about what her children will do in the new environment.
On Tuesday, they bulldozed his shack.
($ 1 = 5.65 reais)
Reporting by Jamie McGeever; Additional reporting by Adriano Machado and Anthony Boadle; Edited by Brad Haynes and Alistair Bell