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Social Mobility in Light of Public Policies and Science

A conversation with Paulo Tafner, CEO of IMDS: "We will find ways for people to have a better chance of improving their lives."
Published in 18/02/2021

Economist, Doctor in Political Science, Paulo Tafner says that he was, from an early age, bitten by a different “blue fly”: not that of power, but that of the transforming role of the state. The development of tools that make society more just and balanced have guided his trajectory and have led to the creation of the Institute for Mobility and Social Development, which is now being born. In the following interview, Tafner talks about public management and the crucial importance of investing in social mobility.

How to define the IMDS in a nutshell?

An institute focused on the element of science, experimentation, which seeks to design, test, propose and disseminate public policies that increase social mobility in Brazil. That’s the definition of IMDS. Ultimately, we will also make public policy proposals aimed at increasing social mobility. That’s the point. We need to spread the idea of mobility, its importance, we need to disseminate indicators and statistics that express mobility. We’re not going to do anything for pre-established positions and understandings. It’s all based on evidence, statistics, numbers, calculations. I’m not going to give an opinion. I may have an opinion, and I do, about a lot of things, but that’s not relevant. The important thing is the scientific method.

The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has calculated the number of generations that an individual born into a low-income family usually takes to reach the average income of the society in which they live. In Denmark this range is two generations. In Brazil we need nine generations – the country is in penultimate place on a list of 31 countries. How will IMDS contribute to modifying this scenario?

By saying that the individual takes nine generations to rise above the poorest strata and reach an average income in his society, and if you define a space of, say, 18 years per generation, we come to the following reality: structurally, an individual who comes from a low-income family, to reach the middle segment of society, would take 160 years. This means that the dependence of the child’s story on the father’s story is very strong. The individual can win a lottery prize and make this leap, but this is not structural. What is structural is that he should have access to skills, to skills that ensure that he reaches the middle strata of society. That’s where we come in. Our focus will be to ensure greater social mobility for the lower strata of society. Mobility is seen by a lot of right-wing, left-wing, center-wing people as the result of an almost purely personal effort. I get tired of hearing “if you run after your dreams, you’re going to make it.” But that happens to one in a million. Pelé is just one! Romário is just one! That’s not what a public policy has to tout. The State must create the conditions for people to have the chance to migrate from their position in society, to move to the middle strata, especially in the case of Brazil, where there are huge pockets of poverty. If these policies are effective, it is possible to structurally reduce poverty, structurally increase equal opportunities. Our goal is to draw attention to this need, and point out viable paths, with the best cost-benefit.

“The idea is that a person is not required to have low qualifications just because his father had low qualifications. If we can change that, then we will have succeeded.”

Is it possible to say that there is a structure in Brazil that is addicted to hindering social mobility

I would say this: we need to be able to spread ideas that change a certain determinism that persists, despite the good intentions of Brazilian social policy. We must make it possible for a person’s life story not to be limited by lack of support. The individual has to be able to overcome the life story of his own father, flying higher than those of generations prior to his. The idea is that a person is not required to have low qualifications just because his father had low qualifications. If we can change that, then we will have succeeded. If we achieve this, we achieve our ultimate goal and we can even close the Institute or change focus, because this theme will no longer make sense.

In Brazil, criticism of social inequality has been common. There is little talk of social mobility. Why did you decide to focus your action on this topic?

There is an idea that if you transfer income, it increases equal opportunities. That’s a mistake. I’m not saying you don’t have to transfer income. Yes, you do. But society tends not to respect people’s differences, and this cannot be overlooked. Inequality exists and will inevitably exist because people are different and will grow up and classify in different situations. Against that we cannot fight, and it may not even be desirable. What we want is for the child of a poor family to have the clear perception that he will have the instruments, the tools to participate in the race of life, and then, yes, on an equal footing. All our children, whether children of the poor or the rich, will be entering the same race, no matter where they come from. Today we have different races. It must be the same race, on the same track, for everyone, and then we’ll have a huge breakthrough. We want to fight inequality, yes, but inequality of chance. And our weapon will be science at the service of governments and society, in all spheres.

Does Brazil already have good social programs focused on mobility?

That is precisely what we want to know and, if we do, we want to evaluate and assess, so that they are expanded and copied by governments. But in general, I can say that we expand social spending without worrying about the effectiveness of spending. Me and several researchers of my generation began to reflect on this reality and have come up with obvious questions. For example: is the program good or not? It must be evaluated! You can’t just do a program and that’s it, in this perspective of always spending more. Social spending in post-democratic governments has grown a lot and we have managed to improve society’s ills. The SUS has problems, but has improved the care to the population, because before there was nothing. We have also universalized access to Elementary and Junior High School, but we’re still skidding at the High School level. The fact is that we are making headway on several fronts, but despite all this, we have been unable to structurally change the life trajectory of the poorest segments.

How soon will it be possible to have the first results, the first public policies suggested or evaluated?

It’s a long road ahead. The fruits take a long time to appear. Will it take ten years? Yes, at the very least. We are not talking about an income transfer program, in which a technician at the Treasury Department pushes a button, the money goes to the banking network and reaches a citizen in the interior of Brazil. What we want is to offer the inputs, and to follow-up on this offer, so that the child included in the implemented program participates for real in the race of life.

“The fact is that we are making headway on several fronts, but despite all this, we have been unable to structurally change the life trajectory of the poorest segments.”

Sir, you and Arminio Fraga (counselor and founder of the IMDS) were together in the construction of a proposal for the recent pension reform. And now you face the theme of social mobility. Is there room to move forward with changes in Brazilian public policy practices?

For many years I mobilized myself on the theme of Social Security because, in the period of re-democratization, citizens’ rights and income transfers increased, services became universal, but the country did not grow, or grew very little. I began to dedicate myself to Social Security, the main item of expenditure of the Union. I’ve written books on the subject. I remember that in one of them, in the early 2000s, Sergio Guimarães, now director of research at IMDS, signed two chapters. Our partnership comes from a long time back, as well as our trajectories as public managers. Anyway, the debate widened. One day Arminio Fraga, in one of our conversations, offered to contribute in some way. He paid the basic expenses of the team that set up the Social Security Reform project and that’s how the proposal came out. The work ended there. Another day he comes to me, once again distressed by the country. I commented that the issue of Social Security had been addressed; badly or well something was already being done. But there was another big problem to be faced, which was the lack of equal opportunities for children and young people. We decided to bring together a group to address the issue. The interesting thing was that he did not seek another report, but a complete project, to take advantage of a fortuitous window of opportunity, as was the case. Arminio started giving ideas to make the Institute viable and, at that moment, I called my colleague Sergio Guimarães, who was at BNDES. That was the turn of 2019 to 2020. We started drawing up the project. For further in-depth discussions, I called Miguel Foguel, Paulo Levy, José Márcio Camargo, Ricardo Henriques, and so we molded the Institute. We were well advanced between February and March 2020, when the pandemic struck. It was a miracle that we were able to formalize the Institute. I’d go out to get papers, go to the registry office… It was about three months of bureaucracy, the empty city, even scary. We have begun to define projects, such as the Evidence Award and the IMDS Trophy, initiatives for the recognition of evidence-based public policies. We’re doing technical cooperation, opening doors. We are also organizing a base of indicators. That has been the trajectory so far.

The Institute is born as a platform for researchers, academics, and public managers. How to join these three ends?

That’s the challenge of the essence of IMDS. Without the public manager it makes no sense to talk about public policy from the institute’s perspective. We have to find these managers. The Evidence award and the IMDS Social Mobility Trophy are initiatives in this regard. We’re going to make public calls about programs. We want to be a mobility platform and, within this platform, have the history and documentation of all social programs carried out in Brazil. We will disclose this so that managers find really transformative programs, properly and carefully adapted to the specific details of each case. We go after the experiences wherever they are, whether in Muriaé, in the municipality of Jânio Quadros, in Bahia, in Tamboril, Ceará, wherever. It is a huge effort; we need to reach journalists from all over Brazil, from outside the Rio-São Paulo axis, and, at some point they will help us reach the managers of the country, the secretaries.

What is the composition of the Institute?

It’s a lean group. We have the CEO, the research board, a computer and data area, a communications area that will have the role of mobilization and an administrative area. I imagine that, in full swing, we will have twelve to fourteen people working, no more than that. We bet on partnerships. There may be a situation where we mobilize hundreds of people in partnership work with municipalities, state governments, public managers. We can, for example, define a program involving 200 schools, with teachers, pedagogues, students, parents of students, thousands of people involved. But the Institute team will always be quite lean. To give governance to the IMDS we have a board of directors formed in part by sponsors, but also by technical people. We have also created a technical committee that will endorse our propositions. When we don’t get that endorsement, we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board and redesign. And additionally, there’s the supervisory board, which will oversee the accounts.

What work references does IMDS count on today?

There are projects in Brazil that have affinities with what we do. Ricardo Paes de Barros, in terms of action, implementation, design and evaluation of public policies, does a very relevant work, which has a lot to do with us. On the issue of inequality in Brazil, which talks about social mobility, he did very important work, showing the relevance of education in increasing the permanent income of individuals. He talks about mobility, ultimately, but with a focus on equality. There are important efforts to build longitudinal panels, in which the same family is accompanied for several generations. Perhaps the most emblematic is the project led by César Victora at the Federal University of Pelotas. Flavio Cunha, at Rice University, helped create an Institute, the Texas Policy Lab, which does research in early childhood and adolescence, and has talked to us about projects that have an impact on social mobility. There is an institution in Mexico, the Espinosa Yglesias Studies Center, which periodically does a national survey on social mobility, but does not have this concern to support the evaluation of programs that we have. There are, on the other hand, researchers who evaluated public programs and their impacts on the areas of violence, education, who talk to us, but they are isolated research studies. There is some quasi-experimental evaluation being made by Brazilian researchers, some of them members of our Technical Committee.

So, is there a way forward?

Yes. We want to support medium and long-term evaluations of public programs, in addition to supporting pilot programs, and we will take advantage of the wide academic network already existing in Brazil. On the other hand, there are many analyses on social mobility from the IBGE PNAD. I must also refer to the seminal works of Nelson Silva and José Pastore, as well as younger researchers who followed along this line. This is the case of Valéria Pero, Fernando Veloso and Sergio Guimarães himself, whose work motivated a more recent production. We want to build a network and support further empirical studies. You can find on our site a set of about 400 indicators of social mobility from PNAD 2014, the last with data that allow this type of analysis. In short, it is more a matter of direction. There are many initiatives aimed at solving specific problems, but not always from the structural point of view of social mobility. We have conceived IMDS as a place that consolidates ideas with this focus.

Would it be an exaggeration to say that the IMDS proposal is innovative, at least for the Brazilian reality?

It is beyond comprehension for an ordinary middle-class person, who does not live or study the topic, to understand that a cement floor at home, instead of a dirt floor, affects the school performance of a child. These are things that, only when you study the scenario, will you realize. And that this can inspire a line of action. A policy focused on social mobility needs to identify where the solution is found in cementing or where it is necessary to have the presence of a recreational teacher to tell children stories. In other cases, the need is a health post, or alternatives for young people on the ills of being caught by trafficking. All this can be done. And it changes a person’s life.

In the labor market, education and income levels go hand in hand. Projects in the area of education are therefore always remembered as efficient tools of social mobility. Are there other ways to be found, for example, in health, in housing?

Health is key. There is evidence that the health and care of pregnant women impacts on the history of the children. Cecilia Machado, for example, who is on our Council, shows in a recent study that the interaction between money transfers to families and prenatal follow-up, when it occurred in the first trimester of pregnancy, had statistically significant effects on the baby’s health (e.g., effect on weight at birth). This type of evidence is very important for public policy, so that the programs can be better designed. There’s a lot of room for us to do work in this area. More than that. The work with pregnant women takes place not only from the strict perspective of health, but from the treatment of the socio-emotional part of the mother, the need for her to talk to her son, as Flavio Cunha has worked, supporting PADIN (Child Development Support Program) in Ceará. Another thing that impacts on the development of the young and the adult is whether they, from an early age, had classes related to personal relationships or vocabulary expansion. This has an effect on the rest of their lives. Young people at that difficult time, at the risk of involvement with drugs, violence, unsafe sex, can be inserted in programs to develop socio-emotional capacities. There is a promising line of programs that use cognitive behavioral therapy to help adolescents better process stress decisions. These are well-evaluated experiences of programs with audiences that are adolescents in situations of extreme vulnerability and exposure to violence, such as Becoming a Man in Chicago; STYL in Liberia and Glasswing in El Salvador. There are several areas to develop, especially with the Town Halls. The research should support better decisions in public policies, which, in turn, should be designed from the beginning to admit permanent evaluations and adapt to the results of these evaluations.

Does running an entity like the IMDS have anything to do with optimism? Are you optimistic?

I had moments of great dismay with the country. But life has asked me certain questions and all I have left, I am convinced of it, is to fight to make it better, fairer. If we can move forward in this, I will have fulfilled a personal dream and contributed to the country, me and those who are with me. It is not only the Institute, but also public managers and all those who share this idea.