Completed Research

Reaching the Hard to Reach: A Case Study of Brazil’s Bolsa Família Program

University of Toronto

As the largest conditional cash transfer program in the world, the Bolsa Família Program, launched in 2003, currently provides income assistance to more than 14.28 million families through direct government-to-person electronic money transfers via the Caixa Econômica Federal. The program is impressive in its capacity to effectively reach families in the lowest income quintile through its active search (busca ativa) strategy.

The Hard to Reach

Families experiencing chronic “intergenerational poverty” in Brazil.

Key Takeaways

The program reached about 20 per cent of Brazil’s population, or 14.28 million families, by 2020 and is actively working toward its goal to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

  1. The importance of an accurate database that identifies families in the lowest income quintile in Brazil, who are eligible for social programs
  2. Cash benefits are directly transferred to recipients, thus bypassing the state and municipal governments – reducing transaction costs and ensuring benefits reach intended beneficiaries
  3. Program effectiveness depends on both high-tech solutions – an automated payment system – and low-tech solutions such as human effort – social workers doing door to door canvassing
  4. With each municipality having unique challenges related to poverty, it is important for the central government program be implemented and operated locally
  5. Citizen participation is critical to ensuring the program is effective in reaching the poorest of the poor


This research was made possible through the Reach Alliance, a partnership between the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. Research was also funded by the Canada Research Chairs program and the Ralph and Roz Halbert Professorship of Innovation at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. The authors of this report would like to express our gratitude and appreciation to those we met and interviewed in Brazil, specifically those in the Ministry of Social Development and the Institute for Applied Economic Research in Brasília, and the inspiring people who are making Bolsa Familia reach in Salvador, Dias d’Ávila, Sapeaçu and Belo Horizonte

This research was vetted and received approval from the Ethics Review Board at the University of Toronto.