The Economist, 10/27/2012
IN THE 1980s an American anthropologist, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, carried out fieldwork in Timbaúba, a town in the sugar belt of Pernambuco state, in Brazil’s north-east. She described a place seemingly resigned to absolute poverty. The back-breaking task of cutting sugar cane by machete provided ill-paid work for only a few months of the year. The deaths of young children from disease and hunger were accepted “without weeping”.
Traces of that bitter world survive in Timbaúba. In Alto do Cruzeiro, a poor suburb on a hilltop overlooking the town, Severina da Silva, a maid who also runs a shop in her living room, says that some people still go hungry. She is 48 but looks 20 years older. A 31-year-old cane cutter nicknamed “Bill” has six children—a throwback to the days when people had big families instead of pensions. But Bill has a labour contract, with full rights; he gets a stipend and a small plot from the state government to see him through the idle months.
That is part of a broader social safety net provided by democracy in Brazil. It includes non-contributory pensions for rural workers. Some 6,000 of the town’s poorest residents take part in Bolsa Família, a cash-transfer scheme started by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president from 2003-10, who was born near Timbaúba. Thanks partly to this cash injection, the town now boasts car and motorbike dealers, new shops, a bank and restaurants.