For millions of Brazilians living in poverty, the long bus ride on the way to work or downtime before bed could get a bit more interesting, and cultural. Beginning in early February the Brazilian government will now provide “cultural coupons” to those earning less than $300 a month, about five times the minimum wage. Loaded onto a magnetic card, the $20 a month coupon will be designated for cultural elements and activities. This could range from dance lessons and circus visits to books and movie tickets. In a country where millions of citizens live in poverty, the program has received considerable praise for being a relatively inexpensive program that encourages the consumption of culture by all. However, some critics have raised significant questions. Does it fall on the state to fund culture? Will Brazilians really use the money on culture? What’s to stop them from buying a Justin Bieber CD rather than the various works of Shakespeare? Cultural Minister Marta Suplicy argues that it is not about what the money is being spent on, but that it gives a new level of access: “What we’d really like is that they try new things. We want people to go to the theater they wanted to go to, to the museum they wanted to go to, to buy the book they wanted to read.” Culture will always have vastly different definitions among different demographics.
While Brazil has developed very rapidly in recent years, the nation remains isolated and struggles with a huge population living in poverty. A study released by the government of Sao Paulo reported that on average, Brazilians purchase four books a year (including textbooks) and only finish reading two of them. Another report released by the government statistics bureau found that of 5,570 municipalities, one in four has a bookshop, theater or museum and only one in nine has a cinema. However, every municipality was reported to have a local library. The study also showed that 85% of Brazilians enjoy watching television in their spare time.
The Brazilian government has high expectations of the new rechargeable coupon, called Vale Cultura. So far, 356,000 people have signed up, but the government is aiming for 42 million to participate. State-run companies are obligated to participate and the government is encouraging unions to include Vale Cultura in wage negotiations in the coming years. Companies can also help by signing up their employees, and with various credit card companies making and distributing the cards, the program has already grown quickly. Suplicy claims,“This is innovative and cool, and no one in the world is doing anything like it. My hope is that it will be revolutionary for culture here. It provides an opportunity for people who never had it and, at the same time, has an impact on cultural production.” While it is a new program, the Worker’s Party in Brazil (now in its 11th year in office) is no stranger to revolutionary programs that aim to help the lower class.
In 2003, Brazil’s president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva introduced the social welfare program, Bolsa Familia. The program, which caters only to those living under the poverty line, grants $15 to $25 to families with children who remain in school and are vaccinated. The amount of money is dependent on how many children are in the family and how far those children continue in their schooling. With an estimated 26% of Brazil’s population receiving grants from Bolsa Familia, it is estimated that the program has reached 20 million citizens. Also, as a country with significant income disparity, Bolsa Familia has helped close the gap between the rich and the poor. The introduction of Vale Cultura is yet another program that will attempt to further close this gap by promoting culture.
The hope is that Vale Cultura will not only promote culture, but also boost local economies. While the effects of this program may be slower than those of Bolsa Familia, officials hope that the program will enhance the economy of culture. One immediate effect will be the democratization of access to culture that was once out of reach. Lower class Brazilians will also have a chance to influence the culture being produced in Brazil. Currently, the majority of movies, plays, books, and concerts depend on corporate sponsorship. Prominent and successful Brazilian businesses invest nearly $800 million per year on cultural projects in exchange for receiving tax breaks. All of these projects funded by these businesses are “safe” and take little to no risks, but with the introduction of Vale Cultura, the cultural power will go directly to the people. André Forastieri a cultural commentator at one of Brazil’s big TV channels said Vale Cultura will not be a huge step forward right away, but it is a far better option than marketing directors of big corporations having all the influence over Brazilian cultural production.
While Vale Cultura has been praised, the majority of officials involved also acknowledge most of the money will be spent on “low culture” items such as self-help books, concert DVDs of famous pop stars, TV shows, and downloads of sexually explicit rap. While these are not the traditional forms of culture the government wants to expose people to, Forasterieri argues that once people get involved, they’ll want more: “Rap is considered part of the culture in the U.S., but 30 years ago they were trying to ban it. It’s stupid to think the money will be spent homogeneously. There’s no better and more democratic way than to put the money in the hands of the people to spend it as they want.” Despite continuing arguments over the program, the first signs of involvement have been promising. Approximately three quarters of sign ups have been by small businesses that have been encouraged by their employees to participate. Strong participation by small businesses and not by multinational businesses, private banks, or other big employers has showed the people’s enthusiasm for the program.
In a country with enormous poverty rates, welfare programs such as Bolsa Familia and Vale Cultura are slowly revolutionizing assistance to the poor. While Bolsa Familia promotes education to a younger generation, Vale Cultura will now allow for the impoverished to have access to culture that was once out of reach.