Has democracy promoted poverty alleviation and equity-enhancing reforms in Brazil, a country of striking inequality and destitution? The effects of an open, competitive political system have not been straightforward. Factors that would seem to work toward this goal include the voting power of poor people, the progressive 1988 Constitution, the activism of social movements, and governance since 1995 by presidents affiliated with center-left and left parties. Yet these factors have been counterbalanced by the strong political influence and lobbying power of organized interests with a stake in preexisting arrangements of social protection and human capital formation. An analysis of four key federal sectors, social security, education, health care, and public assistance, illustrates the challenges for social sector reforms that go beyond raising basic living standards to enhancing socioeconomic inequality.