SAO PAULO — Brazil's leftist Workers' Party always liked to think of itself as a crusader for the poor. Yet in the wake of the party's 13 years in power, there are still 73,327,179 citizens living below the poverty line in the country — a staggering 36% of the population.
Don't take it from me: These are the figures published on Dilma Rousseff's Ministry of Social Development's own, very official website, where visitors can find "socio-economic information about low-earning Brazilian families." Low-earning families are those with an average income of half the minimum monthly wage, or less, per person, children included.
As you'll quickly realize if you're curious enough to dig through the data, however, "low-earning" really is just a euphemism for poor, if not downright miserable. Almost 39 million people live on between 0 and 77 reais ($21.25) a month. Close to 15 million live on between 77.01 and 154 reais ($21.60 and $42.5) and 19.5 million people make do with between 154.01 reais ($43.20) and half the minimum monthly wage, which until the end of 2015 was 394 reais ($109).
And the number of Brazilians living in poverty could actually be higher still, because the register also includes an extra 7.8 million people who earn more than half of the minimum monthly wage — but it doesn't specify just how much more.
These figures are from January 2015, and they should raise eyebrows when compared to the Workers' Party claim that they have rescued 45 million people from poverty during the Lula-Dilma years.
Dilma and Lula on May 12 — Photo: Givaldo Barbosa/GDA/ZUMA
If that were true, it would mean that almost 120 million people — 60% of Brazil's current population – were living in poverty when Lula first took office in 2003. Needless to say, that doesn't sound plausible.
But that's not even the main issue. The most worrisome aspect of these figures is this: If the legacy of a party that rhapsodized about defending the poor is a country where more than 73 million people live below the poverty line, then what will happen now that the new one-note samba is about curbing public spending?
Interim President Michel Temer's pledge to balance the books will necessarily lead to austerity, which is known to initially cause a decline in economic growth — and economic growth is indispensable, though not sufficient, to reduce poverty. One need only glance at the social damage caused by similar policies across Europe to see what's in store for Temer's Brazil.
Of course, those who believe in the heavenly virtues of such policies will always say there's pot of gold sitting on the other side of the rainbow. In Europe, they haven't exactly found it yet, but surely it's only a matter of time.
In the meantime, it's enough to make us fear that Brazil's struggles with poverty will continue unabated. Frei Betto, a friend and confidant of Lula's who became disillusioned with his government, told financial newspaper Valor Econômico what he thought really happened during the 13-year reign of the Workers' Party: "They invested more to give the population easier access to consumer goods — cellphones, computers, cars, white goods — when they really should have prioritized access to social goods — education, health, housing, security, sanitation, etc.," he said.
The new government is led by a president who has already made it clear that no area is immune to funding cuts, not even social benefits. Does anyone really believe that he will commit to the investments Lula and Dilma failed to make, even after the massive demonstrations in June 2013?