March 19th, 2021

Party Politics and Social Policy

A conversation between Lena Lavinas, André Singer, and Barbara Weinstein

In the The Takeover of Social Policy by Financialization, Lena Lavinas names the “Brazilian Paradox”: the model of social inclusion implemented by the Workers’ Party under President Lula and President Rousseff promotes a logic of financial inclusion and market incorporation, and has ultimately contributed to mass indebtedness among the Brazilian population. André Singer assesses this period of social policy expansion as an attempt to reach the “Rooseveltian dream”—a political project that ended with the impeachment of President Rousseff in 2016 and the election of President Bolsonaro in 2018.

On January 25, Lena Lavinas, André Singer, and Barbara Weinstein, historian and author of For Social Peace in Brazil, gathered to discuss this period of mass social inclusion and its unraveling in political scandal and a lurch to the right. A recording of the conversation can be watched here. The transcript was edited for length and clarity.

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June 30th, 2020



Brazil's Bolsa Familia is widely credited with lifting more than 20 million people out of extreme poverty, making it a global model for anti-poverty initiatives. Developed as part of a broader theory of equitable development, it serves as the basis for ongoing efforts to expand the social welfare system for the country’s poor and working class.

In a 2017 book, economist LENA LAVINAS takes a critical approach to Brazilian social policy. Examining the relationship between social policy and financial markets, Levinas argues that, despite its successes, the strategy of "social developmentalism" in Brazil unwittingly entrenched both unequal growth and the stagnation of social protection.

From the book:

"The twenty-first century seemed poised to pluck Brazil from its history of underdevelopment. After suffering through two decades (1980–2003) of low growth and considerable macroeconomic instability, Brazil—in step with the rest of Latin America—was ready to begin a series of rosy years. In the new developmental strategy, the missing link on the way to social cohesion, so the argument went, would emerge with the advent of mass consumption. In Brazil, as in the rest of Latin America, the core impediment to the expansion of a mass consumption society resided (above all else) in the absence of mechanisms for boosting consumption in the context of low productivity and the persistent oversupply of labor.

Performance in terms of the provision of public facilities has not tracked remotely close to the vitality of the market. It does, however, reveal welfare inequities that the market obscures. Through this prism, the upward social mobility observed in Brazil in the years spanning 2003–2014 failed to even come close to promoting a true expansion of the country’s middle classes. Social policy served as collateral to access financial markets through credit. In Brazil, the market has universalized access to color TVs and fridges among those in the lowest income quintile. Treated water, however, to say nothing of adequate sanitation, remains a luxury, the province of few."

Link to the publisher's page.

  • A 2018 by Lavinas details one of the book's arguments—"the collateralization of social policy." Link. And a 2013 paper by Lavinas examines the broad adoption of conditional cash transfer schemes throughout Latin America. Link.
  • In a 2014 paper, Michael McCarthy examines union attempts to control pension fund investment. Link. Another paper by Natascha van der Zwan on the financial politics of occupational pensions. Link. See also: McCarthy's book Dismantling Solidarity, on these same themes. Link.
  • Marie Gottschalk's book The Shadow Welfare State examines the American "private-sector safety net." Link. See also: Frank R. Dobbin's 1992 paper "The Origins of Private Social Insurance: Public Policy and Fringe Benefits in America, 1920-1950." Link.
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April 21st, 2020

Group Formation


Comparative development and social policy

Among the diverse local and national policy responses undertaken to combat the pandemic in recent months, Kerala's has been notable. Within the broader context of Indian economic development, Kerala's government has a tradition of successful redistributive development policies, sometimes referred to as the Kerala model.

In a 2005 article, MANALI DESAI traces Kerala's unique post-independence record of welfare provision to its experience under indirect British rule. By comparing the trajectory of its policy successes to those of West Bengal, a state with a similar electoral history, Desai strikes a distinctive balance between path dependency and contingency, arguing that "the form and content of welfare policies are shaped by the exigencies of state formation, but political struggles are the decisive determining factors of the former."

From the article:

"In the somewhat meager annals of comparable state action in third world societies, Kerala appears as a clear exception. Despite fierce party competition, a church-landlord coalition, and the imposition of presidents’ rule on two different occasions (in 1959 and 1965), the state has seen an array of policies aimed at redistributing land, and providing education, pension plans, minimum wage legislation, and housing for the poor. There have been few serious attempts at understanding these state actions as a form of historical agency. In particular, an issue that is consistently overlooked is the fact that Kerala’s post-independence policy regime was preceded by significant welfare expansion in the nineteenth century in its two southern princely states of Travancore and Cochin. In part under pressure from the British administration, both monarchies undertook significant land reforms and expanded education and health care. While reforms by princely states were not that unusual in the colonial era, the scale and scope of Kerala’s surpassed its peers.

The extreme nature of the caste hierarchy in Kerala, perhaps the most oppressive across India, meant that Christian missionaries not only found a home in Kerala but fed and even stimulated caste insurgency. In particular, one crucial effect of British rule and Protestant missionary activity was the increased porosity of the state to social (lower caste) demands. Both dimensions of colonial power (colonial power as well as social resistance to this power) destroyed status privileges, primarily those based on caste, to a larger degree than found elsewhere in British India. Early welfare policies in Kerala were implemented in a dependent colonial context and aimed at warding off annexation by the British, but their unintended consequences were to stimulate what they were precisely designed to avoid—radical caste and class movements."

Link to the piece.

  • An edited volume from 2000 looks at the history of Kerala's social policies. Link. (A 1991 exchange in the NYRB between Barbara H. Chasin and Richard W. Franke, and Amartya Sen discusses the nature of Kerala's "exceptionalism." Link.)
  • "This article addresses the welfare state in a global historical context. In the new societies of industrial capitalism, two powerful and opposite interests converged in generating public social policies. It uses the five-part model to ask what lessons, if any, it has for the likely emergence of welfare states in the developing world. It also recognizes the immense variety within the 'global South' and distinguishes the distinctive patterns of risk management within it." A 2010 paper by Ian Gough and Göran Therborn. Link. (Ungated version here.)
  • A 2007 paper by Nita Rudra looks at the applicability of Gøsta Esping-Andersen's welfare state typology in the developing context. Link. And Stephen Haggard and Robert Kaufman's 2009 book provides a comparative account of welfare state development across Latin America, East Asia, and Eastern Europe. Link.
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