Before a packed room in the presidential palace in Brasília with a banner behind her reading, “An end to misery is just the beginning”, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff signed what she said was a landmark document last month.

It was an order for an additional disbursement of R$773m ($395m) this year to 2.5m very poor Brazilians to complement what they are receiving under the country’s main social welfare programme, the Bolsa Família.

“Brazil is turning a decisive page in our long history of social exclusion,” says Ms Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla turned technocrat and member of the centre-left Workers party. “On this page, it is written that 2.5m more Brazilians are leaving extreme poverty.”

Brazil’s Bolsa Família or family grant scheme has been widely credited as one of the world’s most effective, with the government claiming it has lifted 22m people from extreme poverty over the past two years and contributed to a decade of economic growth.

Brazil’s social workers are now seeking the remaining extreme poor still outside the system. These searches are part of Plano Brasil Sem Miséria, or the Brazil without misery plan.

The Bolsa Família was started by Ms Rousseff’s predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003. He united earlier cash-transfer programmes, including Bolsa Escola, designed to get children to attend school, as well as food subsidy benefits, and enlarged the scheme to bring in millions of previously disenfranchised poor.

Bolsa Famíla, which today benefits 13.9m families, is for the “extremely poor”, those who earn up to R$70 per capita per month, and for the “poor”, those who earn between R$70.01 and R$140 per capita per month.

To receive the monthly stipend, parents must bring children for regular medical check-ups and they need to show they are attending school.

Critics argue the programme is expensive at about R$10.7bn last year and creates a culture of dependency.

But proponents say it costs a fraction of gross domestic product in return for palpable results. In the 10 years to 2011, the proportion of the population in extreme poverty fell from 14 per cent to 4.2 per cent. The income of the poorest 20 per cent rose seven times faster than the richest during the same period.

It is those still in extreme poverty, estimated at 700,000, that Ms Rousseff is trying to help. “We must find them,’” she said. “The state should not wait for them to come knocking on our door.”

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