Interesting contrast in a couple of news stories coming from the states in the last few days. On the one hand, portents in the Guardian of a difficult 2 years for President Obama in the face of a Republican controlled Congress. On the other, a piece in the New York Times on falling inequality in Brazil. The articles are interesting in themselves. But something else seems striking. For many new Republicans (some Tea Party affiliated), the idea of government spending people’s money – in the form of social security, socialized healthcare, sheer government profligacy etc – is abhorrent. On one level, this is protest against conditionality – that the public is free to earn, on the condition that some of their cash is held back to spend on the ‘public good’.
The NYT article is about the Bosa Familia initiative in Brazil – which aims to reduce poverty through direct cash transfers to the poor:
“The idea is to give regular payments to poor families, in the form of cash or electronic transfers into their bank accounts, if they meet certain requirements. The requirements vary, but many countries employ those used by Mexico: families must keep their children in school and go for regular medical checkups, and mom must attend workshops on subjects like nutrition or disease prevention. The payments almost always go to women, as they are the most likely to spend the money on their families. The elegant idea behind conditional cash transfers is to combat poverty today while breaking the cycle of poverty for tomorrow.”
Plenty has been written in the international development field on the pluses and minuses of this approach (see here for example), but it seems to be working in Brazil. Similar schemes are up and running in Mexico and Tanzania. As the article says, ‘if current trends continue, the United States may soon be more unequal than Brazil.’
So what is the relationship between the two articles? On the one hand, they both show the politics of conditionality in different lights. The public seems far more willing to impose conditions on the poor, or those who would ‘squander’ the resources given to them (cf perpetual benefit cheats exposes in the UK), than accept conditions on high earnings (wrangling over bankers pay, for example?). The public are more than willing to impose conditionalities on the behavior of government. This is a good thing. But those affiliated to the Tea Party seem less willing to contemplate much conditionality in their own behavior and spending. Sometimes this is a good thing, too. But as Matthew Taylor alluded to recently, (and an Economist piece supports), citizens seeing themselves as the ‘passive victims of leadership’ without a sense of its responsibility and compromise is a pretty unsustainable mix.