By Greg Holden

Students who enrolled in the course probably didn’t expect to hear tales of Robin Hood from their visiting professor.

Robin Hood, you’ll recall, took from the rich and gave to the poor. But in the 21st century, Robin Hood has a PhD in economics. Little John and Friar Tuck work for the government’s office of planning and budget. And they call their plan “wealth redistribution” or “income transfer.”

Students in the Poverty, Inequality, and Social Policy in Latin America course taught in Winter Quarter 2008 had the rare chance to examine how theories on fighting economic inequality are put into practice. Brazilian scholar Ricardo Paes de Barros. PhD’87 and Tinker Visiting Professor in the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS), presented real-world examples of economic change and social policy in Brazil.

Targeting Social Policies in Latin America

De Barros knows the subject well: his own research at the Instituto de Pesquisa EconÙmica Aplicada (the applied economics organization affiliated with the Brazilian Ministry of Planning and Budget) focuses on how to improve the targeting of social policies in Latin America.

De Barros is no stranger to the University of Chicago. He was previously a Tinker Visiting Professor in 1996, and he earned his doctorate at Chicago. “It seems that every ten years I have to return here,” he laughs. “If I have the opportunity in the future, I will come again. It is always useful to come here and have access to the superb library and to graduate students who are doing similar work.”

When he gave a public lecture on campus in 1996, the situation in his home country was dire. “I was studying why income inequality was so large in Brazil and why it was so difficult to change that inequality.” This year, he gave a public lecture through the CLAS Latin American Briefing Series. “I am glad to return this year with exactly the opposite result: income inequality is dropping drastically.”

Simple Changes Can Bring Great Results

The 27 students in de Barros’s class learned that relatively simple and inexpensive changes in social policy can have a dramatic effect in reducing inequality. He explained that the educational system in Brazil underwent significant improvement; industry and economic activity were moved to the poorer areas of the country; and a basic safety net was created in which poor families received a stipend if they kept their children in school.

Students from countries like Guatemala, Chile, Venezuela, and Colombia contributed their own experiences and perspectives to lively classroom discussions. “They told me the same thing is happening all over: inequality is going down. The fact that the students major in different fields moves you away from technicalities and leads you to more discussion,” he says.

The lively give-and-take Chicago is known for was evident in the public lecture de Barros gave during his visit. Following the lecture, he engaged in active debate with economists James Heckman, the 2000 Nobelist, and Robert Townsend; and anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, among other Chicago scholars.

Inspired to Work Harder

“What is special about Chicago is the intensity of the environment,” de Barros observes. “You are always inspired to work harder because when you walk around campus or go to the library at any time, everyone is working. There are a lot of workshops and a lot of action; it is a very intense and special environment. Interaction with students of Heckman and Townsend who were doing dissertations on related topics is a kind of cross pollination you don’t find elsewhere.”

De Barros says he hopes more students will be encouraged to study income distribution not only by taking his course in Chicago but also by visiting him in Brazil. “You could see how excited the students were about putting the tools they learned into practice. When those extended tools are applied to problems, it’s clear that their application can actually change reality.”