* New anti-poverty drive is Rousseff’s signature policy
* Aims to eliminate dire poverty, affect more then 16 mln
* Rousseff aims to reclaim positive agenda after problems
By Raymond Colitt and Jeferson Ribeiro
BRASILIA, June 2 (Reuters) - President Dilma Rousseff launched an ambitious plan on Thursday to eliminate dire poverty in Brazil within four years by lifting more than 16 million people from conditions of “misery.”
The “Brazil Without Misery” program is the signature policy of the former leftist guerrilla’s first term, her advisers said, fulfilling one of the key promises she made in her campaign for the presidency last year.
Poorer voters, millions of whom benefited from rapid economic growth and an expanded anti-poverty program under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, are the main electoral base for Rousseff’s center-left Workers’ Party.
The announcement of the new program in the capital Brasilia was a welcome relief for Rousseff following weeks of negative media coverage over a scandal that has tainted her chief of staff and exposed differences with her main coalition ally, the PMDB party.
The success of the Bolsa Familia family stipend program under Lula, which helped lift about 20 million people into a thriving lower middle class, showed that cutting poverty was a crucial part of Brazil’s economic success, Rousseff said at a ceremony in the capital.
“Brazil proved to the world that the best way to grow is distributing wealth,” she said, flanked by her troubled chief of staff Antonio Palocci and Vice President Michel Temer of the PMDB in an apparent show of unity.
Despite the strides Brazil has made in recent years, with brisk growth rates that have pushed it up the ranks of the world’s largest economies, it still faced a “crisis” of poverty that was more serious than any financial crisis, she said.
“We can’t forget that the most permanent, challenging and harrowing crisis is having chronic poverty in this country.”
The new program aims to raise 16.2 million people above the level of extreme poverty, defined as an income of less than 70 reais ($44) per month, through a multi-pronged approach of expanded financial aid, improved education, access to water and energy, as well as job training.
The Bolsa Familia program, which gives a monthly stipend to families based on their children’s school attendance, will be expanded to another 800,000 families, officials said. The program, which has been praised by the World Bank and copied by other developing countries, already reaches more than a quarter of Brazil’s 190 million population.
Officials say poor families will also be provided with education and job training under the program, noting that 40 percent of those in extreme poverty are under the age of 14.
Families will be able to claim Bolsa Familia payments for 5 children, up from 3 now, resulting in another 1.3 million children included in the program.
The new anti-poverty drive will also quadruple the number of poor rural farmers who benefit from government food purchases and payments of up to 2,400 reais every six months to improve their productivity.
A separate Bolsa Verde (Green Stipend) program will hand out 300 reais every three months to families who help to preserve forests where they live.
“It is the state arriving where the poverty is, not the poor having to seek help,” said Tereza Campello, the social development minister.
“It’s a challenge implementing the policies.”
Officials did not say how much the new program would cost.
The Bolsa Familia program has been widely praised for its simplicity and cost-effectiveness. While critics say it creates dependency on state handouts, the program stands in stark contrast to previous attempts in Brazil to reduce hunger that were bogged down by food distribution problems and theft.
Writing by Stuart Grudgings; editing by Cynthia Osterman