Cadastro Unico: Behind the Scenes of Bolsa Familia

Targeting is a key issue in any social welfare program, and Brazil’s Bolsa Familia program is no exception. As the largest conditional cash transfer program in the world, the Brazilian government has worked hard to ensure the beneficiaries are among the poorest in society. This effort has been recognized by the World Bank, which called Bolsa familia “the best targeted CCT [conditional cash transfer] scheme in Latin America.”[1] Bolsa Familia owes much of its targeting success to Cadastro Unico, a single registry that has consolidated data on Brazil’s most vulnerable and has enabled Brazil to expand and improve its social welfare system. This database now contains information on 40% of Brazilian families,[2] and is used by Bolsa Familia, Literate Brazil, Minha Casa Minha Vida and a wide range of other social assistance programs.

First introduced in 2001 by President Cardoso, Cadastro Unico was significantly strengthened in 2003 when Bolsa Familia consolidated four separate cash transfer programs under one name. The system has continued to develop, and in 2010 an online version, Cadunico, was launched.[3] With the goal of increasing efficiency, improving targeting of social assistance programs, and increasing the knowledge and understanding of Brazil’s low-income population to facilitate the design of targeted policies, Cadastro Unico is an essential tool for social policy.[4]

Local governments, the federal government and the public bank, Caixa Economica Federal play distinct roles in implementing Bolsa Familia. Local governments identify vulnerable families, collect socioeconomic data through questionnaires, house visits and interviews, and enter the information into the registry.[5] This data includes everything from the geographic location of the household, access to public services (water, electricity, sanitation), household incomes and education levels of each family member.[6] Currently, there are 5570 local governments collecting data for the registry.[7]

While local municipalities participate in data collection, the federal government, through the Ministry of Social Development (MDS), oversees the registry, defines eligibility requirements and cross-checks data within the registry.[8] MDS has defined eligibility criteria based on self-reported incomes. Lastly, Caixa Economica Federal, a public bank chosen to oversee the registry, holds responsibility for managing the database, assigning identification numbers to families and disbursing benefit payments. With the combined work of these actors, Caixa successfully distributes 13.8 million payments a month to Bolsa Familia recipients, an impressive number of transactions for any agency to oversee.[9]

While critics of big government often point to inefficiency as a huge drawback, Brazil has modeled what an efficient system might look like. While far from perfect, Cadastro Unico is a significant step towards efficiently managing large-scale social welfare programs and targeting populations most in need. As a central piece of Brazil’s overarching social program, Brasil sem Misereria, the single registry system will continue to play a significant role in coordinating the many policies focused on ending poverty in Brazil.

Corey Ackerman
MPP ’16

[1] Hall, Anthony. “Brazil’s Bolsa Familia: A Double Edged Sword?” Development and Change. 2008.

[2] Silveira, Fernando Gaiger. “The Single Registry for the Social Programs of the Brazilian Federal Government.” May 2013.

[3] Curralero, Claudia Baddini. “Single Registry for Social Policies Cadastro Unico.” The World Bank.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lindert, Kathy and Anja Linder, Jason Hobbs and Benedicte de la Briere. “The Nuts and Bolts of Brail’s Bolsa Familia Program: Implementing Conditional Cash Transfers in a Decentralized Context.” The World Bank. May 2007.

[6] Curralero, Claudia Baddini.

[7] Van Langenhove, Thibault. “Cadastro Unico-Operating a Registry through a National Public Bank.” International Labour Office. 2014.

[8] Curralero, Claudia Baddini.

[9] Van Langenhove, Thibault.


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