Lena Lavinas

It is undeniable that the new wave of engouement for UBI (universal basic income) that has shaken the US, the EU, India and so many other parts of the globe in the wake of COVID-19 has also reached Brazil. Everywhere, the simple idea of guaranteeing a regular income, duty-free, underwritten by the State, appears to be the way forward to mitigate the still unmeasurable consequences of the appalling disruptions brought about by the pandemic. UBI would swiftly reduce income insecurity, preventing poverty; it could also significantly contribute to accelerate the economic recovery in the post-COVID-19 era by stimulating aggregate demand. 

The idea of a UBI was galvanized when governments promptly decided to extend the amount, coverage, and length of different sorts of monetary transfers to confront the gravity of the multiple crises created by the COVID-19 outbreak. Unemployment benefits, job allowances, one-time pay-checks, welfare benefits, or even special forms of credit line have spread out to inject liquidity in the economy. All of a sudden, we have a new opportunity for making the case for UBI. 

Brazil was no exception. The comprehensive national social security system created in 1988 that provides free, universal health care (among many other rights) had been made vulnerable by years of underfinancing. But the system continues to be the most effective and democratic institution when it comes to guaranteeing social rights and wellbeing in Brazil. When the COVID crisis hit, the federal government and Congress could have reinforced social assistance, public healthcare, unemployment insurance, and other job allowances — all constitutive dimensions of the Brazilian social protection system. Instead, they united to favor ad hoc measures that, though sounding generous, are inevitably temporary.

The ultraliberal government of President Jair Bolsonaro backed a bill that Congress approved unanimously early April to adopt an “emergency basic income” program that would last the entire state of emergency declared on March 20, 2020. In principle, this program should expire on December 31, 2020, along with the state of emergency. In Brazil, a state of emergency allows extraordinary spending, suppressing the 2016 cap imposed by a constitutional amendment that impeded any real increase in social spending until 2036 regardless of economic growth or rise in tax revenues. 

It bears reminding that Brazil is the only country in the world to have passed a law on Basic Income in 2004, hours prior to the adoption of the Bolsa Familia Program. Yet the law remained a dead letter and largely unknown to most Brazilians. To date, it remains unclear why the Workers’ Party started its mandate presenting a bill on UBI, which was approved without encountering any opposition, too soon after paying no heed to it. Today, despite the existence of a UBI Law, activists, progressive parties, and members of Congress chose the easiest way out, bypassing the already existing institutional framework. They chose a transitory and short-term program over existing law. This narrowed sighted strategy further debilitates Brazil’s social security system, because it deepens defunding. It also fails to bring greater comprehension of what a UBI is in the public opinion, thereby further diminishing the chances to make it a true, permanent, and unconditional right.  

Today’s “emergency basic income program” provides a three time-payment – now extended to four months – of R$ 600.00, the equivalent of $120 USD per month.  It is means-tested. Anyone over 18 years old (threshold waived for single mothers) living with a monthly per capita household income below half a minimum wage (R$ 552.00 / $110 USD) qualifies. The Minister of the Economy estimates that this benefit has reached 54 million people, encompassing the target-population previous recipients of Bolsa Familia, informal and precarious workers, and the unemployed who registered. Let’s not forget that Brazilian monthly median per capita household income, including labor income and all forms of social benefits, like pensions and welfare schemes, corresponds to R$ 862.00, equivalent to $172.00 USD. A monthly stipend of R$ 600.00 is therefore a very significant figure that amounts to 70 percent of the median per capita income and is three times higher than the Bolsa Familia cash transfer. It was the first time that Brazil set the bar so high with regard to compensatory benefits. 

It is worth noting that indigenous and traditional black communities who were proportionally the most hardly hit by the pandemic have been denied the right to this temporary benefit, which is very telling about the challenges for universalizing rights in Brazil. The mortality rate among indigenous in the Legal Amazon is 150 percent higher than the national average. The deficiency of the specific care system for native peoples, the invasion of their lands by miners who can take the virus into their territories and communities, and continuous deforestation are pointed out as reasons that can explain such a high mortality rate and lethality. Faced with the threat posed by COVID-19 to indigenous communities, opposition parties passed a law in early July in Congress that provides for a set of 16 emergency measures to protect some 800,000 indigenous people. President Bolsonaro, however, immediately vetoed the most important ones, such as guaranteeing the supply of drinking water, food baskets, hygiene products and specific ICU beds for indigenous people infected with the virus, arguing that the Union could not afford mounting non-essential expenditures. Brazil remains a very unequal society and has not yet reckoned with its colonial structures of racialized discrimination. 

The Brazilian Bureau of Census (IBGE) just published the first results regarding the impact of the Emergency Basic Income Program: 38.7 percent of all Brazilian households received the program, with the bottom 40 percent benefitting most. 45 percent of all Brazilians received the temporary emergency workers’ allowance and three-fourths of all monetary transfers benefitted the 50 percent at the bottom of the distribution scale. According to IPEA, this allowance has compensated 45 percent of outstanding earning losses due to the pandemic. It also increased by 2,000 times the average income of the poorest 10 percent. This is good news, especially because the recovery of the economic activity that has been noticed in early July significantly relies on the rebound of household consumption. 

There is now strong evidence that providing monetary transfers at large scale and in substantial amounts that make a real difference in people’s lives is a powerful mechanism to boost economic activity, prevent destitution and humiliation, and help people cope with all sorts of hardships.  

Did the crisis and the measures adopted increase the support for a true UBI? Are Brazilians really aware of the challenge and motivated to fight for it? In 2013, I carried out a national survey to assess how Brazilian society values social policies. There was a specific question on UBI. Back then, 51 percent disagreed, and one-third agreed with the idea of implementing a UBI. The current estimates are unknown since no survey asking the specific question has yet been re-conducted. But let us keep in mind that the current emergency workers’ allowance is no UBI. 

The question is whether or not the evidence aforementioned would suffice to bolster the implementation of a true UBI in Brazil.

During the pandemic, doctors, health workers, and the many who support the universal public health care system (SUS) persevered in order to advance a temporary program, called ICU Beds for All. In Brazil, for every 5 ICU beds fully equipped in the private sector, we have only 1 in public hospitals. The problem is that only 25 percent of all Brazilians have subscribed to private health insurance, whereas 75 percent go public. Given that a significant and growing number of ICU beds were underutilized in the private sector, a campaign was launched to create a pool of ICU beds, coordinated by a public entity, to improve access and sort out the waiting list problem. But no agreement could be reached and today Brazil is second only to the United States, with 1,7 million confirmed cases, and 68,000 fatalities, both figures broadly underestimated given that testing is rather rare in Brazil.  It is now obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic was insufficient to unite Brazilians, even when so many lives are lost. 

This paradox raises two major concerns:   

  1. Is UBI the most urgent need for Brazilians? Will it be possible to couple a universal basic income at a relatively significant amount at least to eradicate abject poverty with other universal social policies that are urgently needed such as public healthcare, good public education, social housing, adequate sanitation? Is this affordable? 
  1. To what extent would endorsing UBI strengthen the social security system already threatened by austerity measures derived from the cap on public spending and by attempts of the Bolsonaro government to fully reshape it through tax reform and the merging of different social benefits restricting them to poverty relief programs?


In regards to the first question, what would be the cost of a UBI in Brazil? Of course, the cost depends on the design of the program. To get a rough idea of the cost of a very basic program, let us consider a stipend that would be equivalent to the monthly benefit of Bolsa Familia today, which is R$ 200 per month ($40 USD). This amount should be acceptable by all parties and civil organizations across the political spectrum. The difference lies in the fact that it would apply to individuals (UBI) rather than households (Bolsa Familia Program). 

Let us then imagine that when the law was approved in 2004 the Brazilian government decided to implement the program starting with children under 5. Given that it would be impossible to grant a stipend to all Brazilians, the idea is that we would launch a UBI by targeting the children to prevent intergenerational poverty. The new benefit will accompany the beneficiaries throughout their lifetime as an unconditional right. Focusing on children sounds appropriate because the pension system in Brazil provides a satisfactory income security to the elderly: 85 percent of all seniors over 65 receive a public pension, either contributory or non-contributory, whose monthly amount (floor) corresponds to no less than a minimum wage.  

By providing a UBI of R$ 200.00 to children under 5 in 2004, today’s number of potential recipients under 20 years old totals 60,7 million people (IBGE, PNAD 2004 & PNADc 2020). This would cost R$ 323 billion, or 10 times the annual spending with the Bolsa Familia Program (R$ 32 billion or, 4.4 percent of GDP in 2019). The good news is that 57 percent of all stipends would go the bottom 40 percent of the distribution. The current Emergency Workers’ Allowance Program amounts to R$ 150 Billion, consequently less than half of the proposed UBI, reaching an almost equal number of recipients. 

To grant $40 USD a month to 60 million people in 2019 is three times higher than the federal spending, with the public healthcare system (only R$ 117 billion or 1.64 percent of GDP). Such a program would also surpass by 11 percent of all benefits conveyed by the federal government (including higher education, housing, sanitation, labor, and agrarian initiatives), which accounts for R$ 289 billion (Lavinas 2020). 

In 2019, outstanding federal social spending amounted to R$ 1.73 trillion. Paying a basic income of R$ 200.00, therefore at the level of the current anti-poverty Bolsa Familia program, would compromise 27.5 percent of all social spending. That same year federal social spending in kind corresponded to only 4.12 percent. 

Monetary transfers remain the bulk of social spending, accounting for 68 percent. Should Brazil continue to expand cash transfers, to the detriment of providing running water, sanitation, housing, equal standards in education and healthcare? The most recent data from IBGE (2018) show that 31.1 million Brazilians (16 percent of the population) have no access to tap-water, whereas 72.4 million (37 percent of the population) lack proper sanitation. Not to mention decades of deep housing shortage affecting millions of poor and low-income families who end up living in slums, which makes them less immune to all sorts of diseases in times of pandemics. 

The second question relates to the future of the Brazilian social protection system, which was underfinanced for quite a long time, and now risks being completely dismantled. The Minister of the Economy, an old member of the Chicago Boys who worked for the Pinochet Regime, intends to overhaul social security. He initiated a pension reform in 2019, making it harder for informal workers to get a full pension at retirement. 

Now, that same ultraliberal minister proposes the creation of a “Brazil Income Program”, resulting from the merging of a large number of benefits, both contributory and non-contributory. Workers’ rights like job allowances, unemployment benefits, and other benefits alike will all be suppressed and replaced by an anti-poverty program to reach 57 million people, granting a monthly stipend of R$ 232 per month, 15 percent above the average payment of Bolsa Familia. They expect to spend R$ 52 billion per year with this new program, which is less than one percent of the 2019 Brazilian GDP. This means that the coverage against risks and poverty will be shortened and people’s autonomy and wellbeing consequently corroded. 

In addition, the government intends to provide a voucher to pay for private daycare for two million children up to three years old, which will increase prices and fees and discriminate based on income. Lessons from Chile are well-known to envision that in Brazil things could be different. A voucher of R$ 250,00 corresponds to 10 percent of what middle-class families pay for private childcare in cities like Rio and São Paulo. The best daycare centers, however, charge double or triple. According to the government, churches could be interested in providing this service, an idea that breaks with the logic of secularism in the provision of public education. 

Both concerns point to the ineluctable call for a joint perspective associating basic income and universal public provision to democratize access and opportunities by fully de-commodifying wellbeing. Otherwise, under financialized capitalism, a guaranteed income will just serve as collateral propelling citizenry to take out loans and go indebted in order to meet their financial obligations. 

Early July, that same Congress that approved the Emergency Workers’ Allowance Program voted for the full privatization of water supply and sanitation, maybe having in mind that enlarging access to cash to those most affected by the pandemic would also make it easier to expand further a business model grounded in denying basic human rights and ensuring huge profits for pension and mutual funds that today drive investments in infrastructure in developing and emerging countries. After the longest and most severe recession Brazil has faced over a century since 2015 and given the growth projections ahead (-9.1 percent for 2020, according to the IMF), fiscal resources will dry up while competing and clashing issues will fill up antagonisms, stirring tensions. All the care may not be enough in designing social policies if the goal is eventually to forge a truly egalitarian society in the country.

The major differential of a UBI is to de-commodify labor. It is thus equally crucial to de-commodify the social reproduction of labor, by ensuring that education, daycare, healthcare, training, and other basic needs will also be fully de-commodified. Otherwise, UBI will perform as a powerful pro-market mechanism, upholding income-related and highly segmented private provision, mostly through the financial sector, and fueling rather than overcoming discrimination and inequality.  

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