Public Welfare and Private Privilege in Recife, Brazil, 1870–1950

Friday, January 3, 2014: 3:10 PM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom North (Marriott Wardman Park)
Brodwyn M. Fischer, University of Chicago
By most accounts, the Brazilian welfare state is a 20th century phenomenon, built from the 1920s forward on the basis of federally mediated social and economic rights and public-private workplace initiatives.  That system, however, generally only encompassed Brazilians who earned welfare entitlements through formal, bureaucratic, industrial, or commercial work.  As is well known, such work was disproportionately centered in Brazil’s industrializing southeast and southern regions, and disproportionately available to urban, male workers.  Brazil’s very poorest residents – in and especially outside of those regions – thus had scarce access to welfare as it has been historically understood for most of the 20th century.

There is, however, a less explored alternate history of Brazilian welfare, centered on an older set of public policies aimed at drought relief, nutrition, public health, housing, and illegitimacy. These early policies – rooted in the 19th century and often carried out in collaboration with the Catholic Church -- followed a logic of charity rather than entitlement, and were often structured around and mediated by private social networks. In the 20th century, they grew into extensive programs that constituted most very poor people’s main form of public welfare in Brazil.

This paper explores the ways in which these older welfare structures operated in the northeastern capital city of Recife, Brazil.  It will focus specifically on hunger and housing, and on the ways in which the personalistic structure of older approaches infused the workings of 20th century public welfare, assuring the continued importance of vertical social networks in mediating access to critical social programs.

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