Book traces continuities and divergences in inclusion and inequality reduction policies in PSDB and PT governments

“The Policies of Politics”, published by the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), explores the evolution of state and government policies of both parties when they occupied the Brazilian Presidency.

Janaína Simões

Throughout the New Republic, the PSDB (1994 to 2002) and PT (2003 to 2016) governments built a broad and complex set of policies and institutions aimed at implementing the inclusive policies outlined in the 1988 Constitution, although with important differences in terms of emphasis and intensity. Taken together, the policies produced since re-democratization have significantly reshaped institutions and the social protection system. Analyzing the trajectories of these transformations in detail is the objective of the book “The Policies of Politics: Inequalities and Inclusion Under the PSDB and PT Governments”. The book is a new release from the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), is published by Editora Unesp, and has received support from support of the São Paulo Research Foundation (Fapesp).

CEM is one of Fapesp's Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (Cepid) and is based at the Faculty of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP) and at the Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento (Cebrap). The publication was edited by Marta Arretche, CEM researcher, Eduardo Marques, Director of CEM (both Professors in the Political Science Department at USP), and Carlos Aurélio Pimenta de Faria (Professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas – PUC Minas).

The book is on sale via Editora Unesp's website and discusses public policies and the political dynamics surrounding them, related both to the political continuities experienced under Brazilian democracy and changes in orientation linked to the principles and ideologies of the ruling parties.

The book explores ‘the policies of politics’ by looking at the relationships between different social policies and political dynamics, in particular the agendas of the two parties that have exercised political authority for extended periods under the New Republic. It addresses several sectoral policies, beginning with the institutional configurations inherited by each party when they came into government, and the changes they introduced. The 16 chapters that make up the book address themes such as the social protection agenda, and the effectiveness of policies in the areas of income redistribution, health, education, social assistance, urban, infrastructure, development, racial, indigenous, tax and budgetary policies and foreign policy. All are assessed in relationship to social and economic inequality, and are empirically based, theoretically oriented and scientifically rigorous.

One of the strengths of the publication is the way it demonstrates the strained relations between the expansion of redistributive policies aimed inequality reduction and inclusion and the continuation of a regressive tax system. The period sought to incorporate outsiders, those lacking access to benefits offered by the model of regulated citizenship, but keeping the regressive patterns of tax collection untouched, which are known to have a stronger impact on the income of the poorest.

While the PSBD produced legislation that increased regressiveness, the PT did not reverse them, "contrary to the expectations of much of the literature on the Left's preferences in the area of taxation", highlight the authors. The PSDB and PT adopted “measures such as the granting of tax exemptions and deductions, which, combined with the regressive taxation system, did not interfere with an important pillar of income inequality in the country. In the same direction, incremental budgetary decisions by both parties, when in power, resulted in a tightening of the budget.”

In terms of public policies, the authors demonstrate the gradual construction of an wide range of policies aimed at reducing inequalities. Together, both parties acted to implement inclusive policies outlined in the 1988 Constitution, but differed in the strategies they adopted to combat poverty. As a result, they moved apart programmatically: the PSDB moved to the center-right and the PT to the center-left.

Over the period, we have moved towards universal access to health, education and social protection. Economic stability led to a fall in poverty and social inclusion policies contributed to a fall in inequality during the years of economic growth, in addition to the formation of a social protection cushion following the onset of a prolonged crisis in 2014. The federal government returned to play a central role in urban policy, as well as in policies to encourage infrastructure development.

On the other hand, the sustained increase in public spending, the persistence of unacceptable levels of inequality, falling revenues and rising public indebtedness deserve questioning. In the case of fiscal pressure, the authors argue that it is not "a direct by-product of the 1988 Federal Constitution. Rather, it is the result of decisions taken regarding its implementation". As of 2016, under the Temer government, public policies aimed at promoting a more inclusive society began to be strongly questioned, or even rejected.

The book also shows that the recent rise in poverty and inequality occurred mainly in the labor market, through unemployment and falling incomes, and shows the importance of federal income transfer policies, which offset these losses. “Between 2016 and 2017, the average monthly individual income of the poorest 5% fell by half: from R$ 113.64 to R$ 68.71. As the values ​​of the Bolsa Família Program (PBF) and the minimum wage were corrected, the average monthly individual income of this group in 2017 was R$ 192.61 (via PBF) and R$ 267.73 (via social social security payments)”, according to calculations based on the National Household Panel Survey – PNAD Contínua.

Diverse priorities

The set of studies that make up the book “The policies of politics” reveals that the New Republic comprised two periods of 'durable political authority', a situation in which a political force wins presidential elections and exercises control of the most important federal positions, while also being capable of producing narratives about itself and imposing its governing agenda.

The period of lasting political authority in the PSDB Presidency had an agenda centered on controlling inflation, stabilizing the currency, reforming policies inherited from the military regime, and implementing welfare policies advocated by the Constitution. For the PSDB, social inclusion via the state was prioritized less than the adoption of policies aimed at promoting jobs. The setting up of the Unified Health System (SUS), the creation of the Fund for the Maintenance and Development of Elementary Education and the Enhancement of Teaching (Fundef) and expansion of access to basic education, the approval of the Cities Statute, and the introduction of income transfer programs to combat extreme poverty stand out in particular.

The PT period was characterized by an inversion in the order of priorities. The PT brought the fight against poverty and inequality and the expansion of the provision of goods and services, including with the strong expansion and diversification of policies from the previous period, especially for the poorest, to the center of the agenda. The aim of economic stability initially had a place within this agenda, but it was gradually downgraded and “in the Dilma Rousseff government, this orientation was progressively overrun by continued attempts to artificially extend the period of growth and calm during Lula's administrations through public spending”, the book argues.

The PT continued with efforts at institutional strengthening and intensified the development of policies for social inclusion and inequality reduction (including large real increases in the value of the minimum wage). More specifically, it increased the rate of formalization in the labor market, greatly expanded the Bolsa Família Program, expanded and diversified health coverage for dental care and access to medications, produced programs for vulnerable populations, increased federal spending on educational policy and public higher education and expanded the offer of primary, secondary and vocational education, promoted urban policies and massively increased the housing supply – and targeted it towards the low-income population using public subsidies –, expanded social assistance and income guarantee programs, as well as increasing Brazil’s influence on the international stage.

Notwithstanding the differences in priorities, “the two periods are not characterized by radical ruptures”, but by incremental and articulated changes that, taken together, changed the role of the state and the nature of public policies. The institutional framework, budget limitations, constraints resulting from Brazil’s integration into the international economy, the need to build government coalitions and strategic interaction with other parties, and dynamics within the parties operated as a brake and prevented ruptures. This demonstrates that major changes do not result automatically from occupying state power, but also that they do not require abrupt ruptures.

Midia Press
Janaína Simões
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