DEMERVAL LOBAO - Luiza Sousa, a 51-year-old unemployed woman from northeastern Brazil, knows exactly what a dollar is worth. “With two reais ($1), you can’t even buy half a kilogram of chicken," said the resident of Demerval Lobão, in Piauí, one of Brazil's poorest states. "I bought a coconut with two reais today.”

But according to the Brazilian government, Sousa and her four sons were no longer living in extreme poverty by the end of 2012, when they started to receive two reais per month from the “Brasil Carinhoso” welfare program (“Caring Brazil”). 

Under this program, families that are already receiving financial aid from another social welfare program, “Bolsa Familia” (“Family Allowance”), are eligible for an extra two-reais supplement. The government considers “extreme poverty” as a monthly income of up to 70 reais ($35) per person within a family.

Luiza receives 140 reais ($70) every month thanks to the Bolsa Familia program. At the end of 2012, an extra two reais were added to her allowance. Her other incomes come from donations and her part-time job as a washerwoman, and her oldest son’s job as a housekeeper.

With the two extra reais, Luiza and her sons have joined the ranks of 16,4 million of people who have officially left extreme poverty in the past seven months. Luiza’s neighbors, Joelina Maria de Sousa, 31, and her daughter, Jucélia, seven, were also eligible for the two reais allowance.

When is a person no longer poor?

According to data obtained by Folha, from last year, Luiza, Joelina and another 13,100 Brazilian families got the extra two reais, helping president Dilma Roussef to reach her election promise of eradicating extreme poverty in Brazil before 2014. This is idea behind Brasil Carinhoso, launched in the middle of last year.

The amount paid per family by the Bolsa Familia welfare program ranges from two to 1,140 reais ($1 to $570). The average paid amount is 86 reais ($43).

On average in Brazil, each family receives about 245 reais per month ($122) from social welfare programs.

Improving the quality of life in Piauí, one dollar at a time- Photo: deltafrut

According to the Ministry of Development, there are still 600,000 families in extreme poverty in Brazil. In 2003, before the Bolsa Familia program was launched, there were 8,5 million families in this situation. 

Economists interviewed by Folha said it was necessary to take into account other aspects – not only family income – before it was possible to talk about eradicating poverty.

"A person is no longer poor when the person has housing, clothing, education, health and employment and is able to finance themselves,” says Socorro Lira, coordinator of the Development and Environment PhD at the Federal University of Piauí (UFPI).

Jaíra Alcobaça, also from UFPI, says initiatives that bring any kind of improvement to the quality of life are important, but need to be seen as emergency actions. He says that welfare assistance should take into account regional differences.

Folha visited Luiza in her brick house. It was built by her brother after her old home, a mud house, collapsed. In her kitchen, there was bread, two coconuts and a small portion of rice. “I have enough to eat only because I have meals at my mothers,” she said.