The Programa Bolsa Família (PBF) is one of the largest conditional cash transfer (CCT) programmes in the world. CCTs have been described as a ‘magic bullet’ for development, and PBF is widely regarded as an exemplary programme. Examination of its conceptual underpinnings, features, impact and limitations shows that PBF provides substantial income support to the poorest. However, PBF is also self-limiting and it can offer only limited long-term gains to the poor. More significant outcomes require the expansion of the scope of PBF and other social programmes towards the universalization and decommodification of social provision in Brazil.