There’s a great article in the New York Times, by Tina Rosenberg, on anti-poverty programs in Brazil and Mexico that really work.

Today, however, Brazil’s level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than that of almost any other country.  Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians.  Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent.  Here’s the basics:

The program, called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) in Brazil, goes by different names in different places. In Mexico, where it first began on a national scale and has been equally successful at reducing poverty, it is Oportunidades. The generic term for the program is conditional cash transfers.  The idea is to give regular payments to poor families, in the form of cash or electronic transfers into their bank accounts, if they meet certain requirements.  The requirements vary, but many countries employ those used by Mexico: families must keep their children in school and go for regular medical checkups, and mom must attend workshops on subjects like nutrition or disease prevention.  The payments almost always go to women, as they are the most likely to spend the money on their families.  The elegant idea behind conditional cash transfers is to combat poverty today while breaking the cycle of poverty for tomorrow.

It’s refreshing to have any good news at all in this area; usually all that can be offered is the hope that general prosperity will trickle down sometime, and as Amy Chua points out, in many areas this just doesn’t happen.  Not only do the Brazilian and Mexican programs measurably help, but they’re large-scale national programs.  It’s relatively easy to make a difference in one town somewhere; the usual problem is scaling the solution up.