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Documenting Citizenship: Contemporary Efforts Toward Social Inclusion in Brazil

24 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 2 Sep 2011

Wendy Hunter

University of Texas at Austin

Natasha Borges Sugiyama

University of Wisconsin - Madison

Date Written: 2011


People without identity documents go unrecognized by modern states and therefore cannot access the rights, benefits, and services that they provide. Significant numbers of Brazilians still lack the necessary documentation to enjoy citizenship. Yet since the late 1990s a federal campaign has sought to increase the numbers of Brazilians who possess identity documents. The birth certificate is the steppingstone to all other essential documents.

This paper focuses on recent efforts to ensure that as many Brazilians as possible acquire birth certificates. The recent registration campaign even addresses cases of “delayed registration,” whereby adults retroactively document their births, many times in an effort to pursue subsequent identity cards and to participate in social programs that require them. The paper first explores why so many Brazilians lack documentation. It then seeks to identify the causes (including the timing) of the major federal mobilization underway to address the problem. Our central argument is that the previous orientation of social policy as developed under the period of ISI (import substitution industrialization) was so focused on “making citizens” of workers in the urban and formal sector of the economy (as well as civilian and military servants) that broad segments of the population remained socially excluded and therefore saw little immediate reason to surmount the many obstacles to obtaining documents. The state did little to facilitate the process of documentation either.

Why then the change? We argue that social policies developed in the late 1990s and in the 2000s – specifically those that direct benefits to low income individuals in the informal sector -- have both exposed the number of undocumented people in the population and provided a strong incentive for them to acquire identity documents. For example, one key program that addresses childhood poverty, the Bolsa Família (Family Grant), requires that all family members obtain a birth certificate to become beneficiaries. This conditional cash program, which represents an extension of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s previous federalization of the Bolsa Escola, now serves over 12 million families. Another major program created in the “neo-liberal” era, one that addresses old age poverty, is the Beneficio de Prestação Continuada or Continuous Welfare Benefit. A non-contributory pension program, the BPC grants payments to indigent seniors and younger disabled individuals. In existence since the late 1990s, it now serves over 3 million Brazilians. Application requires the presentation of numerous documents, beginning with the birth certificate.

Before these and related policy innovations, many of the kinds of people who are current beneficiaries remained entirely unintegrated into any major social program. This fact contributes to explaining why many poor people did not surmount the multiple challenges involved in applying for a birth certificate or any other identity document. This dynamic, whereby a policy generates incentives for people to acquire other basic elements of citizenship recalls Aaron Wildavsky’s (1979) notion of “policy as a cause” in and of itself. Thus, despite the considerable criticism launched at the design and format of many social policies undertaken in the wake of market reform, the “the downstream effect” of documents acquisition represents a highly positive development. Notably, the sequence by which many low income Brazilians are acquiring identity documents represents an interesting inversion of the order that T.H. Marshall wrote about long ago (1950). Rather than first gaining the civic dimensions of citizenship and then acquiring its social aspects, it is the quest for and possibility of social inclusion that is driving the acquisition of civic citizenship for many poor Brazilians.

Keywords: Citizenship, Legal Identity, Social Policy

Suggested Citation

Hunter, Wendy and Sugiyama, Natasha Borges, Documenting Citizenship: Contemporary Efforts Toward Social Inclusion in Brazil (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Wendy Hunter (Contact Author)

University of Texas at Austin ( email )

Austin, TX 78712
United States

Natasha Borges Sugiyama

University of Wisconsin - Madison ( email )

716 Langdon Street
Madison, WI 53706-1481
United States

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