Economic Policies & Ideologies

Brazil is often touted for having one of the fastest growing economies in the world and is praised for embracing economic liberalization and free markets. However, this prosperity has benefited a small elite while widening the gap between rich and poor; half of Brazil’s income goes to 10% of its population.[1] Poverty is pervasive, particularly among rural sharecropping families and in the large urban slums known as favelas. Roughly 35% of the country lives on less than $2 per day, with just over half of rural Brazilians living in poverty.[2]

Contrary to the hopes and expectations of many, the transition from military dictatorship to civilian democracy failed to bring about economic justice. In 1994, restructuring guided by the International Monetary Fund caused a recession, a soaring national debt, and cutbacks to social services. Since then, not only has wealth continued to be unequally distributed, but agrarian reform has stagnated, access to quality health care and education is weighted against the poor, and taxation promotes the needs of the wealthy over the economically marginalized.[3] These inequalities manifest socioeconomically, but also racially; white Brazilians report an income more than twice as high as pardos or pretos.[4]

The Workers’ Party has been celebrated by many for reducing the overall poverty rate and giving greater attention to social programming—for example, its bolsa familia program gives cash payments to about 14 million impoverished families in return for keeping their children in school and vaccinated and the Brasil Sem Miséria program gives direct cash payments to 22 million impoverished Brazilians.[5] While wealthy Brazilians have criticized the Workers’ Party for fostering a “welfare” state—an assumption unsupported by research findings—leftists believe the party has become too accommodating in its failure to address the underlying economic conditions that fuel economic growth but which promote poverty.

Pope Francis visited Brazil in the summer of 2013, decrying socioeconomic inequality during a visit to Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela.[6] The Argentine Pope has revived the Catholic conversation on poverty and social injustice, which has been embraced by many Catholics, although there has yet to emerge a comparable widespread focus on social justice to that of the liberation theology era. Pentecostal churches have been criticized by leftists and progressive Catholics for ignoring the conditions that encourage poverty and instead promoting a Prosperity Gospel that promises “health and wealth” to religious devotees. However, Pentecostalism represents a diverse array of churches and varying perspectives among congregants, many of whom are directly engaged in poverty‐related activism. Pentecostals have, for example, supported the leftist Peasants League in Northern Brazil and the Homeless Workers Movement.[7]

When Brazil hosted the World Cup in 2014, it did so in the name of boosting infrastructure, tourism, and the economy. It appears that the reverse has occurred since the country has been plunged deep into a recession, which may be its worst since 1901.[8] These serious economic problems threaten the Rio Olympics of 2016, which is expected to exceed its $13 billion budget. The economy shrank by 3.8% in 2015, and continues to contract.[9]  While the government has struggled to undertake these huge projects, its health care is in crisis, with hospitals unable to admit patients due to insufficient funding. The dire Brazilian economy is a major factor in President Rousseff’s decline in popularity—she has a meager approval rating of about 10%.[10]


[1] Brazil: Key facts and figures,” BBC News, September 28, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/5379016.stm, accessed May 13, 2014.

[2] Rural poverty in Brazil,” Rural Poverty Portal, International Fund for Agricultural Development (2010), http://www.ruralpovertyportal.org/country/home/tags/brazil, accessed May 9, 2014.

[3] Levine, The History of Brazil, p. 151.

[4] “Affirming a divide,” The Economist, January 28, 2012.

[5] “The end of poverty?” The Economist, February 28, 2013, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21578665-nearly-1-billion-people-have-been-taken-out-extreme-poverty-20-years-world-should-aim, accessed May 13, 2014.; Howard Schneider, “Want to end poverty? Brazil’s answer: Give people money,” The Washington Post, January 31, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/01/31/want-to-end-poverty-brazils-answer-give-people-money/,  accessed May 9, 2014.

[6] Juan Foreno, “Pope Francis visits richest and poorest on first full day in Rio,” The Washington Post, July 25, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/pope-visits-slum-says-rich-need-to-help/2013/07/25/2fb56e3a-f548-11e2-81fa-8e83b3864c36_story.html, accessed May 9, 2014.

[7] Stephen Hunt, “Evaluating Prophetic Radicalism,” Pentecostal Power: Expressions, Impact and Faith of Latin American Pentecostalism, ed. Calvin Smith (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 157–180.

[8] David Biller, “Brazil Heads for Worst Recession Since 1901,” Bloomberg, January 4, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-01-04/brazil-analysts-ring-in-new-year-with-deeper-recession-forecast, accessed March 5, 2016.

[9] “Brazil's economy shrank 3.8% in 2015,” BBC, March 3, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/business-35715317, accessed March 5, 2016.

[10] Kenneth Rapoza, “Brazil’s Economy Hasn’t Been This Bad Since 1930,” Forbes, January 14, 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2016/01/14/brazils-economy-hasnt-been-this-bad-since-1930/2/#4e257d73722e, accessed March 5, 2016.

Image Credits:

"Aldeia Tenondé Porã," Sarah Fernandes (2012), Flickr Creative Commons.