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Transforming Subjects into Citizens: Insights from Brazil’s Bolsa Família

  • Wendy Hunter and Natasha Borges Sugiyama

Abstract

Welfare programs distribute benefits to citizens. Perhaps even more importantly, by conveying powerful messages about how the state views poor people, welfare programs shape people’s views about themselves as subjects or citizens. Theoretical debates on how public policies can enhance democratic citizenship inspire our study of Brazil’s Bolsa Família (Family Grant). Has this conditional cash transfer program, which forms a major point of contact between the state and millions of poor Brazilians, elevated feelings of social inclusion and agency? A prominent perspective in the welfare-state literature would not expect a positive outcome given the strict means testing and behavioral requirements entailed. Yet our focus group research with Bolsa Família recipients suggests that the program does foster a sense of belonging and efficacy. Policy design and government discourse matter. This innovative welfare program yields rich insights on alternative paths to citizenship development for middle- and low-income countries in the third wave of democracy.

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