Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
The election of the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 surprised most Brazilians. Yet, the rise of conservatism after many years of left-wing hegemony was not undetectable. In order to understand this political shift, I propose an analysis of the paradox faced by social workers responsible for the implementation of the Bolsa Família Program (BFP) in Northeast Brazil. This paradox, faced by a progressive work category, implementing the flagship program of left-wing governments, touches upon conflicting worldviews of the political, work ethics and public spirit. In this context, this article aims to consider conceptions of the BFP as elaborated by social workers and the interaction with other factors such as the fragile legal status of the program, discretionary practices, and class relations. The first object of analysis is the social workers responsible for the program’s implementation and their work environment, focusing on representations of the poor that are incorporated in their daily activities. I will demonstrate that social workers enjoy a range of discretion when determining a family’s level of poverty, thus directly affecting the benefits’ distribution. When separating “deserving” from “undeserving” poor, social workers are aware they are going against the program’s rules, and in consequence undermining its main goal of equal treatment of citizens. However, social workers find in their work ethics a justification for a harsher treatment of beneficiaries, in order to privilege people with higher needs. Facing this paradox, social workers give voice to conservative worldviews typical among higher classes that slowly dominated Brazilian politics.