Ask an average Brazilian what they like to do in their free time, and 85 percent will tell you they turn on the TV. Brazil’s Minister of Culture, Marta Suplicy, is working to change this phenomenon by making arts and culture more accessible to Brazil’s poorest. Through a 2013 program called Vale Cultura, Brazilians are being offered a rechargeable, state-issued culture stipend that allows them to participate in cultural events for free.
The target enrollment set by the Ministry of Culture is 42 million. As recently as February, 356,000 Brazilians had already enrolled in Vale Cultura.
The 50 reais provided monthly by Vale Cultura, equal to about $20, is enough to buy books, movies, newspapers, dance lessons or tickets to theaters, cinemas, museums and circuses. The card can be attained by Brazilians who earn up to five times the country’s minimum wage. Employers have the option of signing up for the program, under which they provide 90 percent of the stipend in return for a tax break on that amount. Employees can opt in or out, paying the remaining 10 percent out of their own paychecks.
A video created by the Ministry of Culture to introduce Vale Cultura clearly points out the need for this kind of program to foster deeper cultural connections among Brazilians: 96 percent of Brazilians have never been to a museum, 78 percent have never attended a live performance, only one in nine cities has a theater and three of every four municipalities lacks a bookstore.
Minister of Culture Suplicy believes that the Vale Cultura program will even the cultural playing field, providing a feeling of social inclusion for people of lower socioeconomic classes. Suplicy, a member of the Workers’ Party, is hopeful that by offering poor Brazilians “food for the soul,” art and culture will become more democratic. She also claims that the stipend program could introduce as much as 25 billion reais, or $3.5 billion, into the cultural sector.
Yet the culture stipend has attracted criticism as well. Some charge that it is simply a populist ruse put in place by the Workers’ Party to garnish mass support. It could also cost Brazil close to $10 billion a year at a time when protests over the allocation of public funding are already raging. Suplicy replies that “[t]he point is social inclusion. But I am under no illusions that it will happen quickly. It is a big challenge, and it’s going to take time.”
Others believe the policy should be given a chance. After all, the Workers’ Party has a record of imaginative social policy-making, including the Bolsa Familia program which provides monetary incentives to poor families who faithfully send their children to school. Bolsa Familia is said to have lifted upwards of 20 million Brazilian families out of poverty. Similarly, Vale Cultura has great potential to lift poorer Brazilians out of cultural stagnation. The program won’t be without those who misuse it, but providing the poor with access to art can equalize cultural opportunities and enliven societies.
– Kayla Strickland