Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

"You plan your biographical life according to a set of possibilities and temporalities that are available to you. … There are only certain doors that open to you. And the doors that are open to you structure your aspirations."

Gregory “Duff” Morton

Brazil’s Boom

Welfare, Reverse Migration, and Village Values

Bearded and bespectacled and dressed in black and gray, Gregory “Duff” Morton looks nothing like a Russian doll, but his mind works like one. Ideas nest within ideas, broad questions enclosing ever more pointed ones.

Why, for example, does social mobility fail to occur despite economic growth? More specifically, why, after Latin America’s “golden decade,” when the income of the average Brazilian household nearly doubled, did social mobility not increase as well?

An economic anthropologist, Morton is looking for the answers in reverse migration, which he calls “leaving labor:” the phenomenon of rural peasants, after migrating to the cities and earning twice what they’d earned at home, eventually saying, “I’m done with this. I’m going back to the village.”

Which in turn brings up yet another question: why would people turn away from an economic boom?

Morton cites four core motivations for the rural return: violence and safety issues, family connection, the ability to set one’s own schedule, and the desire to live without a boss. As for social immobility, he says, in Brazilian society “outcomes are fairly determined by your parents’ position.”

He explains: “You plan your biographical life according to a set of possibilities and temporalities that are available to you. … There are only certain doors that open to you. And the doors that are open to you structure your aspirations.” In other words, biographical time – your life and aspirations – and structural time – the timeframe that allows a social group to make a future identical to its present – are at odds, so why aspire to a social position you probably won’t attain?

That’s why, instead of improving their social rank during the boom, Morton says, most Brazilians stayed in their jobs. Construction workers were paid much better at the end of the decade than at the beginning. But they were still construction workers.

Changing Family Poverty

That said, the situation might be changing. Morton sees the seeds of social mobility in conditional cost transfer programs, or CCTs, two of which he studies in northeastern Brazil: one that gives out money on a continual (e.g. monthly) basis, and one that disburses funds in a lump sum. Unsurprisingly, this question of whether CCTs enable social mobility contains a narrower one: which CCT is more likely to lead to social mobility?

“The reason these questions are so relevant,” Morton explains, “is that transforming family poverty involves long-term investment. We think it’s important for families not just to eat better but also to build up sustainable assets. But of course, giving money every month is kind of the opposite of encouraging asset building. And so it makes you wonder, why not just try giving people lump sums?”

To answer this, Morton studies Bolsa Família – what he calls “the biggest welfare system in the world.” Created in 2003 under President Lula da Silva, the much-emulated program is credited with reducing poverty in Brazil by almost a third in the span of a decade. It’s also promoting public health and educational goals, since to receive the transfer families must send their children to school and get them vaccinated. At the same time, he studies a smaller, more obscure maternity benefit that gives rural women four months of minimum wage salary when they have a baby.

What Morton has found is that a lump sum changes gender relations in the family in a way that continual disbursements do not.

“When you get a lump sum, you have to figure out some way to save it. You have to buy permanent assets. And someone has to be the designated owner of that asset, which changes power relations. So when these women get four months of salary, they usually buy cows. Sometimes they’ll invest it in a field. But it’s a permanent asset and almost always a self-reproducing one: cows will have other cows, fields will continue to produce year after year. So this one-time amount of money changes the long-term ownership structure inside the family,” he says.

“That’s different from Bolsa Família … because the things women buy – food, clothes, school supplies – are typically transient. So their position inside the family doesn’t change.”

Morton further refines the question: how is Bolsa Família used differently in families that are close to the poverty line, where women are able to build up some small asset base by setting aside a bit of the money each month, and in families that are extremely poor? He found that women in the former category are able to use small amounts of credit to purchase, for example, a refrigerator or a stove or a bed. But whereas a cow reproduces itself, a refrigerator eventually wears out.

His conclusion so far?

“Bolsa Família is good for improving people’s nutritional outcomes and educational effort. It’s also good at building household permanence. It’s not good at changing the long-term asset structure of a household.”

Narrowing his focus further, he asks, “What about mixed programs that combine continual support, which is very important for nutritional reasons, with an infusion that allows for a sudden change in the household structure?” Morton believes governments should be thinking about these programs more.

An Anthropologist Is Born

When Morton enrolled at Yale, he was more Latin American activist than budding anthropologist. (His activism began around age 7, when his mother took him to a protest for which he made a sign that said, “Aid to El Salvador.”) But that changed when he enrolled in a class taught by the Peruvian scholar Enrique Mayer called Anthropology of the Andes.

“People will house you, they’ll feed you forever, it’s a very generous place. … One of the very serious forms of deprivation that people suffer from is not just not having enough to eat, it’s not being able to have a guest in your house."

“I thought ‘This is it’. One day you read a neoclassical economical analysis of marketing techniques. And then the next day you’re reading a novel. And then the day after that, there’s an ecology textbook chapter that you have to understand, about different soils and their effects on potatoes. The fact that these elements could come together to give a portrait of what it means to be a person was fascinating to me.

“I realized that anthropology could cross all of the boundaries that the academy had spent the entire 20th century erecting.” 

Morton didn’t become an anthropologist on the spot, however. After graduating in 2000, he worked in the States as a psychiatric case worker, a community organizer, and a homelessness advocate, and in Brazil as an activist with the Landless Worker’s Movement, or MST. It was in 2005, when he was living in a village in the state of Bahia and working with the MST, that he decided to apply to graduate school. He took the GRE in São Paulo, then returned to the village and wrote his application in a hut with no electricity.

Even so, his descriptions of village values as they relate to the land reform movement betray the makings of an anthropologist.

“’Welcome’ may be the most important human virtue in northeastern Brazil,” Morton explains. “People will house you, they’ll feed you forever, it’s a very generous place. … One of the very serious forms of deprivation that people suffer from is not just not having enough to eat, it’s not being able to have a guest in your house."

“Often social scientists assume that people join [the MST] in order to mobilize resources or because they’re pushed into it by the scourge of poverty. And that’s not untrue. But many were born in tiny villages where ‘welcome’ is a key virtue, and they went to the city … where they didn’t have the capacity to welcome in the way they would like. And so going back to the countryside through the Movement is a way to create a space where you have the dignified capacity to welcome another into your life. And that’s a very beautiful thing.”

- Sarah C. Baldwin