By Celia Dugger
FORTALEZA, Brazil — Vandelson Andrade, 13, often used to skip school to work 12-hour days on the small, graceful fishing boats that sail from the picturesque harbor here. His meager earnings helped pay for rice and beans for his desperately poor family.
But this year he qualified for a small monthly cash payment from the government that his mother receives on the condition that he shows up in the classroom.
"I can't skip school anymore," said Vandelson, whose hand-me-down pants were so big that the crotch ended at his knees and the legs bunched up around his ankles. "If I miss one more day, my mother won't get the money."
This year, Vandelson will finally pass the fourth grade on his third try — a small victory in a new breed of social program that is spreading swiftly across Latin America. It is a developing-country version of American welfare reform: to break the cycle of poverty, the government gives the poor small cash payments in exchange for keeping their children in school and taking them for regular medical checkups.
"I think these programs are as close as you can come to a magic bullet in development," said Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit research group in Washington. "They're creating an incentive for families to invest in their own children's futures. Every decade or so, we see something that can really make a difference, and this is one of those things."
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former factory worker who took office last January as a champion of the poor, is consolidating an array of cash transfer programs, sharply expanding his version of the model, named Family Grant, and tripling the average monthly benefit, to about $24.
By 2006, Family Grant will reach 11.4 million families — more than 45 million people, about a quarter of Brazil's population. That would be by far the world's largest such program. Ana Fonseca, the director — who reports directly to the president and his chief of staff — called Family Grant the payment of "an old debt the country has to its poor citizens."
Mr. da Silva's moves are popular with constituencies that include the poor — a bedrock of his political base — as well as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, big supporters of the model, which are putting up $3 billion in loans for the program. Its total cost over the president's four-year term will be close to $7 billion.
Its annual cost — about a third of 1 percent of Brazil's gross domestic product — will be more than offset by savings Mr. da Silva's administration has squeezed out of the civil service pension system, said Joachim Von Amsberg, the World Bank's lead economist for Brazil.
But the program has also won wide public acceptance here, surviving from government to government in large part because it is not simply a handout.
Mr. da Silva's Workers' Party can claim credit for being among the first in the world to experiment with this model in the federal district of Brasília in 1995. "The idea was to pay the families to bring their children to school rather than put them to work," said Cristovam Buarque, an economist who was then Brasília's governor and is now Mr. da Silva's education minister.
But it is equally telling that Mr. da Silva's political rival and predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, adopted the approach and turned it into a national program in 2001. His party had also tested the model in the city of Campinas in the mid-1990's.
The spread of this approach across Latin America has been fueled by impressive results from a raft of studies — in Nicaragua, Honduras and, most influentially, Mexico, whose program now reaches more than 20 million people.
The rigorous Mexico evaluation, conducted by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, found that the children who took part were healthier and better nourished and stayed in school longer than those in a control group.
Poor Brazilians, in recent interviews, made clear that the bits of money that seem trivial by rich-country standards loom large for families living, as millions here do, on less than a dollar per person a day.
From a sprawling favela built on the sand dunes of this seaside city by the poor from the parched rural interior, people said the government money paid for beans, rice, carrots, potatoes, eggs, mangoes, cooking oil, haircuts and school supplies.
Children whose families get the grants say the fear of losing the money makes them more serious about school. Most still have jobs, too, but outside school hours.
Carla dos Santos, 12, like Vandelson, is in fourth grade at the Fernando Cavalcante Mota School on Senator Robert Kennedy Street. But her face bears the weariness of someone several times her age.
"She has suffered a lot," said her teacher, Maria das Mercês. "She takes care of her family. She has the responsibilities of an adult. She's trying so hard."
For four hours every morning before school, Carla works as a maid, cooking, washing clothes and scrubbing floors for 30 cents an hour. She never splurges on treats. "I buy groceries — rice, beans, spaghetti, chicken," she said earnestly.
Then she goes to school, as she must for her family to get the grant. Several times she has fainted — from hunger and stress, her teacher thinks. In the evening, Carla often cares for her brother and sister, ages 5 and 7, in the two small, windowless rooms they call home while her single mother, Elisebete dos Santos, goes to an aunt's to cook dinner in "a house full of lazy people who don't do anything," Carla said bitterly. Ms. dos Santos said she cooked for her relatives because they gave her food for her children.
The family's biggest source of income is the government grant, which more than doubled two months ago, to $32. "It's a tremendous help for people without jobs," Ms. dos Santos said.
Claudimir Portela, an impish 11-year-old with lush brown eyes and a thick fringe of lashes, lives a few blocks away. He would rather be anywhere but the classroom. He is happiest playing soccer on a scruffy lot in the favela, but he even prefers kneading dough at his job in a bakery that pays him in small change and loaves of bread.
"My mother tells me, `You've got to stay in school or you'll be stupid and you'll never amount to anything,' " Claudimir said. But he did not seem impressed. It is not the long-term promise of a better life that keeps him in school, but his mother's threat that if he loses the $5 a month from the government, she will send him to live in the boring countryside with his father.
"The fact that I have to go to school every day is a real pain," he said. "If it wasn't for the money, I'd stay on the street. I wouldn't come for even one day."
A two-and-a-half-hour drive from Fortaleza, in the tiny, parched rural settlement of Quixába, the families eat what they grow — often not enough — and have virtually no opportunities to earn extra money. The land is rocky, the skies often devoid of rain. Even now, in Brazil's summer, the trees look like kindling. Brazil's drought-prone northeast has Latin America's largest concentration of rural poverty.
Parents and teachers here say the children would go to school even without the grants. There is not much else to do. But the parents are still deeply grateful for the money.
Those who have recently begun getting larger payments have no doubt about whom to credit: "First, I thank God," said Maria Andrade, an illiterate woman who for the first time was able to buy flip-flops for her barefoot children. "Second, I thank President Lula."
In what has become a monthly ritual, the mothers go to Canindé, about 30 miles away, to collect their payments. They swipe their government-issued electronic cash cards at the local lottery booth and out pops the money. Then they spend it at the market.
Antônio Souza, 48, and Maria Torres, 37, are raising seven children in a mud hut a couple of hills away from Ms. Andrade. Every member of the family is sinewy and lean. The parents cannot remember the last time the family ate meat or vegetables. But their grant of $27 a month makes it possible to buy rice, sugar, pasta and oil.
Mr. Souza and Ms. Torres, illiterate believers in the power of education, have always sent their children to school. "If they don't study, they'll turn into dummies like me," said their father, whose weathered, deeply creased face broke into a wide smile as he surveyed his bright-eyed daughters, Ana Paula, 11, and Daniele, 8, among them. "All I can do is work in the fields."
His wife said proudly: "There are fathers who don't want their children to go to school. But this man here has done everything he could to send his children to school."
Each weekday morning, a big flatbed truck jounces down the rutted dirt road that threads a path through Quixába, stopping at the scattered mud huts to collect children. The little girls' dresses — hot pink, lime green, lemon yellow — make splotches of color against the dun-colored landscape. The truck kicks up a billowing cloud of dust as it slowly chugs up and down the hills, carrying students to the country school.