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SAO PAULO – Life may still be tough for millions of poor Brazilians — but it's also never been better.
And that's the key for President Dilma Rousseff's re-election bid.
Although Rousseff and top rival Marina Silva are locked in a virtual tie among those in the middle class, the biggest group of voters, the president has a wide edge with Brazil's poorest people because of generous welfare programs that have helped slash hunger and extreme poverty under the watch of her Workers Party.
Between 2001 and 2012, Brazil reduced extreme poverty from 14 percent of the population to 3.5 percent, according to the United Nations annual report on global food insecurity released last week. The number of malnourished people dropped from 19 percent to below 5 percent, removing Brazil from the U.N. World Hunger Map.
Tens of millions of poor people have also been lifted into the lower middle class over the past decade.
The most recent poll by the respected Ibope Institute, released last week, showed that 46 percent of people in the poorest income category — about a fourth of the electorate — would vote for Rousseff in the first round in the Oct. 5 election, compared to 24 percent for Silva.
That's much better than Rousseff's showing among the electorate as a whole. The Ibope poll shows her with a slim 6 percentage point lead over Silva in the first round. If neither candidate gets 50 percent, a runoff will be held on Oct. 26 and the poll shows Silva leading that by a slim margin.
Ibope surveyed 3,010 people across Brazil from Sept. 13-15 for the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
In Sao Paulo's Heliopolis slum, one of Brazil's largest, Andrea Santos says there is no question who most of her neighbors will vote for.
"Improvements Dilma and the Workers Party have made in health and educational services for the poor will guarantee that 90 percent" of the voters in Heliopolis will cast ballots for Rousseff, said Santos, who lives in a decrepit, three-story building of concrete tucked into a narrow alley.
Santos and her five children and one grandson share the cramped two-bedroom walk-up that rents for $400 a month — her entire salary for coordinating educational activities for youth at a local community center.
"If it weren't for the money my sons earn doing odd jobs here and there and running errands I would not be able to pay the rent," said Santos, standing in front of flat-screen TV with Nelinha, her 7-year-old Pinscher dog.
For four years, her family benefited from one of the Workers Party's most popular programs, Bolsa Familia, which paid $10.7 billion to almost 14 million families in 2013.
Bolsa Familia is a program that pays mothers a varying monthly stipend as long as they can prove that they're keeping their kids in school and taking them monthly to government health clinics for checkups and immunizations.
Santos received about $100 in cash a month to keep her children in school until the last child finished classes in December.
"The lives of the poor have improved under Workers Party governments and they will vote for Dilma because they feel their lives will continue getting better, and fear they may lose the benefits they have obtained should she lose," said Pedro Fassoni Arruda, a political science professor at Sao Paulo's Roman Catholic University. "There is no doubt that nationwide Dilma and the Workers Party have the support of the poorest segments of society."
Silva's team has accused Dilma's campaign of spreading rumors among poor Brazilians that Silva, who is pushing a more orthodox line of economic policy, would end Bolsa Familia if elected. Dilma's team denies that.
Last week, Silva ran an emotional campaign ad that showed her telling a rally in northeastern Brazil that she would never end Bolsa Familia because she herself went hungry as the daughter of an impoverished rubber tapper deep in the Amazon jungle.
Privately, Silva's campaign advisers acknowledge frustration over their inability to attract poor voters, arguing they lack the time or campaign funds to make them more aware of the difference between Silva's humble roots and Rousseff's middle-class rearing.
Still, among poor voters, Rousseff's political mentor, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who rose from being a shoeshine boy to the nation's highest office, and the Workers Party brand seem enough to keep them as firm supporters.
Manoel Otaviano da Silva, a community leader in the Heliopolis slum, put it bluntly.
"Lula is seen here as a God who can no wrong," he said. "If he backs Dilma, then she can do no wrong. Most residents here see her as a continuation of Lula and the programs his government introduced."
Walking around the labyrinth streets of Heliopolis, it's virtually impossible to find a single poster or banner from the Marina Silva campaign. Rousseff's campaign ads are plastered all over the place.
"Why should I vote for Marina Silva when I know what Dilma and the Workers party have done and will continue doing?" said Maria Damaceno de Santana, a 43-year-old cook who lives in the slum. "Dilma must be re-elected so she can continue helping the poor. We know Dilma. We don't know Marina Silva."