Bolsa Família, Basic Income and territorial autonomy

Image: Hmailton Grimaldi


A Universal Basic Income program should be thought of as a gateway to a more autonomous life

The health crisis has mobilized economists of different orientations in defense of Basic Income. But the dispute over the meanings of the term is evident, which materializes both in the conceptions around the design that politics would come to have, and in essentially political struggles. We present here a reflection on the UBI based on the legacy of the PT governments in Brazil with regard to the Bolsa Família Program and the recognition of the new conditions of the labor market, affected both by the economic crisis and by the reforms with a fiscal tightening character and restriction of rights. We start from the concern that, in a context of predominance of urban forms of life, Basic Income, detached from territorial bases, may imply the reproduction of more inequality. Or at least, result in solutions that are less adapted to local needs and, therefore, fall short of potential results.

In this sense, it becomes inescapable to recover the role of the Workers' Party governments (2002-2016) in the scaled implementation of redistributive policies, most notably Bolsa Família. We also seek an approximation that we see as necessary, a look at the exploitation of workers based on the racial and sexual division of labor and its relationship with the unsustainability of the predatory pattern of urban occupation. The reflection seeks convergences between the struggles, which may suggest the implementation of income redistribution programs that are more integrated with the needs of each territory.

Since the 1980s, reproductive work has been reorganized on a market basis in rich country economies. Silvia Federici draws attention to this process, which in the Global North transferred part of the household chores to immigrant women from the South, posing a new question for the feminist struggle. The computer entered the domestic world, but automation did not reach the activities necessary for reproduction. By being devalued, and understood as a private matter and women's responsibility, reproductive work generated new chains of social and economic vulnerability. Commercialized, it was displaced to the poorest, who work as domestics or caregivers, promoting overlapping layers of inequalities among women.[I].

This logic was intensified by the pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus, which came to produce an unprecedented economic crisis, and worldwide, but more intensely in countries subjected to economic adjustments that promote cuts in social services, it is presented again as a reproductive work crisis. Poor women are faced with a tragic dilemma: do they continue to work and expose themselves to illness, or stay at home and expose themselves to misery? The context sparked a new reflection.

Silvia Federici's analysis, which starts from a gender perspective to understand the international geopolitical dynamics of labor exploitation, can be valid for national contexts, especially metropolitan and intra-urban ones. What does it mean for thousands of women to travel every day, many for many kilometers, to carry out poorly paid and largely precarious domestic work?

According to data from PNAD (National Household Sample Survey)[ii], there are more than six million domestic workers in Brazil, mostly black women, poor, with low education. In this universe, more than four million who work informally must be included, a situation that is growing at a faster pace than the entry of people into this market. It should be considered that, in a context of economic crisis, the “day labor” service is often presented as the only alternative for survival, a reality of many poor women, and even more so for single mothers.

Poorly paid domestic activities in the strange house, the long journeys, precarious housing, the delegation, often involuntary, by poor women of caring for their own children to third parties, ensure the reproduction of the salaried working middle class. Meanwhile, employees with higher wages enjoy good living conditions and have enough wages to access private education and health services. Such distinctions, produced by the system, promote cleavages between male and female workers themselves.

The situation of plunder[iii] to which so many women are subjected, was wide open in the health crisis, when many were forced by their contractors to continue the journeys. Exposed to the virus in the first hour, domestic workers in the homes of people returning from international trips, were among the first victims of Covid-19[iv]. If the virus does not distinguish human beings, the inequality with which the disease spread attests to the conditions of injustice in the country. The need to work to survive, exposure to public transport, the unfavorable housing conditions of the poorest, and the lack of basic sanitation in many neighborhoods – an obstacle to the adoption of hygiene habits, as simple as they are indispensable -, are elements that crossed explain the higher death rates in neighborhoods where workers, due to their location and housing conditions, were more exposed to the spread of the disease[v].

Brazil figures in international news as a counterexample in dealing with the health crisis. Without the adoption of strong isolation measures, immersed in a political crisis in which the President of the Republic himself opted for denialist positions regarding the medical and scientific community, going against all the recommendations of a federative coordination of actions to more effectively combat the spread disease, and the means for its treatment. The country is experiencing the daily tragedy of counting its dead, at levels both expected and unacceptable.

At the same time, the economic crisis and the deepening of a fiscal adjustment agenda since 2016, made the precariousness of work in Brazil advance, and a new category of worker emerged in the landscape of large cities. The figure of the delivery man, previously identified as “motoboy” for using motorcycles as a means of transportation, was increased by cyclists who literally carry the reproduction of formal workers on their backs. The demand for services through internet applications increases the situation of exploitation of these subjects managed by digital systems of companies that circumvent labor ties based on new technologies. With the pandemic phenomenon, the middle class’s greater adherence to social isolation anticipated the spread of the so-called “home office”, which had been slowly adopted with the expansion of automation and digital processes.

Delivery service workers, already exposed to violent traffic, also began to suffer from exposure to the virus, as companies do not offer protective equipment or spaces for rest and adoption of hygiene measures. The very low remuneration for this work creates a cruel paradox: the more necessary and demanded, the more subjected to exploitation. The absence of an employment relationship with the companies means that part of the responsibility for the low remuneration of delivery workers is transferred to the consumer, through the “tip”. The appeal to charity and benevolence is complementary to the evident deprivation of rights.

The term “uberization of work” has been used to characterize impersonality in forms of exploitation, whose logic indistinctly invades countless professions. But the generalization generates a new invisibility about the work that demands greater effort from the bodies, the one necessary for reproduction and less susceptible to automation processes, on which the harshest forms of exploitation fall. It is seen that automation processes are used in two ways. In the so-called productive dimension, they subtract physical effort, but in the context of the reproductive world, their use is only to make bodily effort invisible, which until now has proven not to be fully automatable, and is increasingly touted on marketing grounds, now through apps. In this process, if reproductive work was carried out primarily by poor women, the mass of unemployed people produced by neoliberal adjustments transfer part of this burden to other exploitation networks. The case of couriers is paradigmatic. The condition to which they are subjected in this service also exposes the racial division of labor, which perpetuates the most exploitative conditions for the poor population and, in their majority, black people, in this case, men.

This finding opens up a critical perspective on the conduct of public policies, which have been developed at a pace that is far from meeting social needs. Advances in its implementation tend to guarantee more immediately the functioning of the so-called productive work society, advancing only more slowly in the broad perspective of rights. Public services were the first to suffer from the neoliberal adjustments that tend to reduce their scope. Low quality and insufficient public transport, for example, is one of the most naturalized forms of exploitation, and therefore invisible. Means that operate above capacity still guarantee profits on large commuting trips, in which the spoliating dimension of reproduction becomes more capital accumulation, disregarding minimum standards of safety and comfort for workers.

The same happens with the lack of vacancies in kindergartens. When it comes to child care, again the cost falls on women and even more so on single mothers. Domestic workers, caregivers or helpers in various jobs with minimum pay, self-employed sellers of industrialized products, carry out reproductive work and care for family members in their own homes at the same time, which has intensified during the pandemic. This workforce is absolutely essential for maintaining accumulation levels. For structural transformations to take place, it is necessary to give them visibility, so that public policies are implemented with the aim of meeting human needs, and not to feed this same accumulation.

Therefore, we understand that it is fundamental to think of Basic Income, not as a simple redistributive action in a macroeconomic sense, but based on the recognition of reproductive work as the basis of the capitalist exploitation process. A means to build the autonomy of bodies exploited and alienated from their own condition. Which, in turn, can be seen as one of the achievements associated with the Bolsa Família Program (PBF).

As is known, Bolsa Família is a program of benefits focused on poor and extremely poor families, designed with conditionalities in the areas of education and health. Originating from the unification of smaller scale programs, such as Bolsa Escola and Bolsa Comida, created during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government, the PBF, created in 2004, gained relevance and progressive and national scale from the PT governments.

Serving approximately 13 million families across the country and at a low cost, the program has already been evaluated from several aspects. These evaluations show very positive results, so that there is currently a consolidation of these analyzes and a relative consensus on their success.[vi].

Program evaluation study[vii] suggests that the municipalities that had the most growth in GDP and per capita income were those that received more resources from social income transfer programs. In these municipalities there was also a greater reduction in poverty and income inequality. The article, which presents a panel analysis of municipalities between 2004 and 2010, controlled both by fixed effects and by specific trends for each municipality, points out that the PBF is positively related to an increase in GDP and municipal per capita income, even after these controls.

The PBF also positively affects school attendance via conditionalities, having positive effects on the increase in schooling, and contributing to the reduction of child labor.[viii] Another study[ix] showed the absence of the so-called “laziness effect” associated with the program, concluding from a sample of more than 3 million individuals that the chances of PBF beneficiaries staying in employment are greater than for non-beneficiaries of the program.

It is from this real experience, from the numerical reach that characterized it as a mass social policy, and from the economic results that it promoted in some territories, that the country can think of a more daring income transfer policy.

Women were the main beneficiaries of the largest income transfer program ever implemented in Brazil, generating unprecedented autonomy for this segment of the population. In addition, the requirement of conditionalities such as keeping children in school and having an up-to-date vaccination record, through the program, sheds light on the reproductive dimension.

At the same time, the focus on guaranteeing the minimum necessary for survival placed human life as a basic principle of public policy. In this sense, the program, as well as the universalized health policies through the strengthening of the SUS, reverse the logic of the system and drive the economy based on the most immediate needs of human beings.

The counterpart of caring for children required by Bolsa Família, on the one hand, increases women's responsibilities, gives visibility and builds value on the work of care. In the medium and long term, this could mean a transformation with regard to the exclusive attribution of these jobs to women, imposed by a structurally sexist and misogynistic society.

The cultural transformation still takes place due to the importance that the program had in the lives of poor women, who manage the household alone, since the recognition of their roles expands the very concept of family, which in the institutional scope is no longer restricted to the father, mother format. and sons).

Bolsa Família also represented an important source of dynamism for local economies. Together with the appreciation of the minimum wage and the benefits linked to it, the program took economic activities and income possibilities to territories previously marked by scarcity and poverty. Part of this dynamism can be verified by the expressive multiplier effect of the PBF and other social benefits. For example, research by Marina Sanches, from the economics department at FEA/USP, finds that the multiplier effect of social benefits reaches 1,9, and is even greater in times of crisis. That is, for every BRL 1,00 spent on pensions, the Continuous Cash Benefit (BPC), Bolsa Família, BRL 1,90 of product is generated[X]. These programs, if linked to more progressive forms of taxation, can be a solid basis for the sustainability of a universal Basic Income system[xi].

In the hands of the poorest population, money circulates and transforms local dynamics, expanding production, income and employment. In this way, the implementation of income transfer programs has a notorious impact on the benefited territory and shows that they can be thought of from the municipalities.

In this sense, if the PBF had expanded the very concept of family by massively reaching families headed by women, the experience of Maricá, in Rio de Janeiro, came to demonstrate the possibility of expanding the economic autonomy of municipalities. Experience has shown that income transfer programs, if integrated with policies to promote the solidarity economy, urban and peri-urban agriculture, education and diverse cultural manifestations, can mean the approximation between productive work and reproductive work, leading to significant changes in the family structure and in the conventional gender roles in the traditional productive structure.

Understanding the territorial impacts of the PBF led the PT administration in Maricá to implement forms of integration between the minimum income policy and the establishment of a local currency, the Mumbuca, which must be used in the city or in accredited establishments in the region. The high multiplier potential of these programs, stimulated by the fact that it makes less sense to save in Mumbuca, established a trade and production network that make Maricá an international example. In addition, the high circulation of the social currency and the regional limitation of its use reduce the fiscal cost of the Minimum Income policy, compared to what it would be if the income were paid in reais. The municipality stood out for overcoming the economic crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic[xii].

The possibilities opened up by experiences like this point towards structural transformations of local realities from an economic dynamism that has as its origin the guarantee of income. The expansion of economic activity and deeper social changes enter into a virtuous cycle of feedback in which the improvement of material conditions opens the way for moral, economic and political autonomy of the subjects and especially of the women benefited, such as Walquiria Leão Rego and Alessandro Pinzani, had already observed in the case of the PBF[xiii].

In Maricá, the seamstresses of the Minha Casa, Minha Vida complexes, benefiting from the transfer program, sell their products to other beneficiaries in exchange for food produced in the territory, establishing networks and economic ties as well as solidarity. Based on public policy, family groups, in their various compositions, have guaranteed income rights and expanded job possibilities. This transformation also allows for a restructuring of the family space itself, where there is more time for care and affection, less insecurity about the future and more integration with the community.

And, at the municipal level, for changes of a structural nature, the implementation of the basic income needs a source of continuous funding. The Urban Land and Property Tax (IPTU), applied progressively, in order to tax large urban landowners, seems to be the ideal instrument to finance an income transfer system on sustainable bases, directly affecting inequalities[xiv], since the valuation of properties socially constituted throughout the urbanization process would be transferred to the reproduction of workers. An income program that is not articulated to territorial issues does not directly affect historically crystallized location inequalities or even intensify them, if it does not provide for an economic return to the municipality and continued and sustainable forms of financing, only temporarily displacing part of the public budget that would not be reset.

Thus, programs that consider Universal Basic Income from a strictly economic perspective in the form of income insurance, or negative income tax, limit the scope that this type of initiative is capable of having. From an even more liberal point of view, if linked to the reduction and privatization of public services, the UBI tends to consolidate reproduction on a market basis, being implemented in the logic of the voucher for access to basic services[xv]. Finally, when understood as a replacement for productive work in the face of automation processes, for example, the instrument ends up admitting the body itself as a commodity, and restricts human dignity to a consumption relationship.

On the contrary, processes that understand a Universal Basic Income program as a gateway to a more autonomous life, and not a gateway to a situation of poverty, are capable of structurally transforming local economies and commodity production relations and reproduction of life. The atomization of existence as a strictly private phenomenon and the precariousness of care and reproductive relationships accentuated by the pandemic require a transformation that takes collective ties into homes and into public spaces the reproduction of life, combining a transformation of the domestic environment with a dynamization of the territories.

The experience of Bolsa Família, therefore, in reaching beyond what was proposed as the most immediate objective, posed new possibilities and also new challenges for an income transfer program to be more than that, and constituted from more structural transformations .

*Nilce Aravecchia is an architect and urban planner, professor at FAU USP, author of State, architecture and development, the housing action in Iapi (FapUnifesp).

*Laryssa Kruger Costa Bachelor's Degree in Public Policy from EACH USP and Master's Degree in Architecture and Urbanism from FAU USP.

* Rodrigo Toneto holds a master's degree in economics from FEA USP.



[I]FEDERICI, Silvia. The Zero Point of the Revolution. São Paulo, Editora Elefante, 2019, pp. 222-232.

[ii]NUMBER of domestic jobs in the country breaks record. The state of Sao Paulo, São Paulo, 30 Jan., 2020.

[iii]In terms of Lucio Kowarick in: KOWARICK. Pike. the urban dispossession. São Paulo, Peace and Land, 1979.

[iv]MELO, Maria Luiza de. RJ's first victim was a domestic worker and caught the coronavirus from her boss in Leblon. UOL News, São Paulo, May 19, 2020. Available at:, accessed on: 20 Aug., 2020.

[v]In the case of the city of São Paulo, there is a higher number of deaths from Covid-19 in neighborhoods with a higher concentration of favelas and tenements. MARINS, Carolina; PESSOA, Gabriela S. Neighborhoods with slums and tenements concentrate more deaths from Covid-19 in São Paulo. UOL News, May 5, 2020. Available at:

[vi]SOUZA, Pedro HG Ferreira de; OSORIO, Rafael Guerreiro; PAIVA, Luis Henrique; SOARES, Sergei. “The Effects of the Bolsa Família Program on Poverty and Inequality: A Review of the First Fifteen Years”. Text for Discussion Ipea, Brasília, n. 2499, Aug. 2019. Available on: Accessed on: May 28, 2020

[vii]DENES, William; KOMATSU, Bruno Kawaoka; MENEZES-FILHO, Naercio. An assessment of the macroeconomic and social impacts of income transfer programs in Brazilian municipalities. Brazilian Journal of Economics, v. 72, no. 3, p. 292-312, 2018.

[viii]CHITOLINA, Lia et al. The impact of the expansion of the Bolsa Família program on school attendance 2013.

[ix]SANTOS, Danilo Braun et al. The effects of the Bolsa Família Program on the duration of formal employment of low-income individuals. Public Administration Magazine, v. 51, no. 5, p. 708-733, 2017.

[X]SANCHES, Marina. Fiscal policy and output dynamics: an analysis based on fiscal multipliers in Brazil. São Paulo: FEA-USP, 2000. Dissertation (Master in Economics).

[xi]CARVALHO, Laura. What is behind the different Basic Income proposals. Nexo Jornal, 11 June. 2020. Available at: Access 8, Nov. 2020.

[xii]BETIN, Philip. Maricá, in Rio, preserves jobs and businesses in the pandemic and places basic income at the center of the debate. El País, 19 July. 2020. Available: Accessed on: Nov. 8, 2020.

[xiii]REGO, Walquiria Leão; PINZANI, Alessandro. Voices of Bolsa Familia. Sao Paulo, Edunesp, 2013.

[xiv]THE STATE OF S. PAULO/ Estadão Data. 13/08/2016. “1% of property owners account for 45% of São Paulo's real estate value”. Available at: http://www.estadao.,1-dos-donos-de-imoveis-concentra-45-do-valor-imobiliario-de-sao-paulo,10000069287. Accessed Nov 8, 2020.

[xv]CARVALHO, Laura. What is behind the different Basic Income proposals. Nexo Jornal, 11 June. 2020. Available at: Access 8, Nov. 2020.

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