Effects of family income and conditional cash transfers on household food insecurity

The Nutrition Society Paper of the Month for December is from Public Health Nutrition and is entitled ‘Effects of family income and conditional cash transfers on household food insecurity: evidence from a longitudinal study in Northeast Brazil’  by Poliana Palmeira, Rosana Salles-Costa and Rafael Pérez-Escamilla. 

Food insecurity (FI) exists when there is deprivation or uncertainty about access to quality food in sufficient quantity. Over 700 million people suffer from severe FI or hunger worldwide, representing a major violation of the human right to adequate food. Overcoming FI is a huge challenge for social organizations and policy makers around the world. Thus, it is relevant to understand how much governmental programs can contribute to protect families against FI.

Our recent study is timely given that in Brazil, where access to food and a basic income are rights guaranteed by the constitution, the Government was a pioneer in the development of public policies to confront hunger, household FI and poverty. Between 2003 and 2014, the Brazilian government implemented a set of policies that included, among other measures, social protection, food assistance and cash transfers through the Bolsa FamíliaProgram - the largest conditional cash transfer program in the world. So it is important to find out if this program has been successful at diminishing household FI.

In our cohort study we examined the impact of household income and cash transfer from Bolsa Famíliaon household FI reductions among Brazilian households. We followed families living in a semiarid area of extreme climatic and social vulnerability, between 2011 and 2014. At baseline, 55% of families experienced FI and around 12% experienced severe household FI, that reflects the strong food deprivation and hunger in the families in the municipality where we worked.

We found a substantial decrease in the prevalence and severity of household FI across time, which was likely to be explained, at least in part, by the implementation of public policies in Brazil that effectively addressed social inequities during the study period when strong economic growth happened in the country. 

Our findings showed that in addition to household income, household FI was strongly determined by lack of access to the Bolsa FamíliaProgram. We hypothesized that this is because this program, beyond increasing the family budget, provided a degree of regular income stability for the families through an efficient debit card electronic system; plus access to a suite of complementary social, agriculture and health protection programs that supported these vulnerable families in times of need.

Overall, the results suggest that reductions in government investments in cash transfer programs can lead to strongly persistent FI among vulnerable families. Thus, political will is needed to protect social protection programs such as Bolsa Familiathat are effective at protecting highly vulnerable families against FI.

We hope that our study helps inspire Brazil and other countries to improve their investments in social policies approaches to eliminate hunger and food insecurity, in strong partnership with academic institutions. 

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