Social mobility prospects for a 20-something Brazilian
By Alex Gregory
The Brazilian economy has seen its share of turbulence. From Brazilwood to sugarcane and precious metals to coffee, booms and busts have provided much of the country’s livelihood since the Portuguese set foot on South America in the 1500s. The country poured time, money, and trust into one resource at a time and profited enormously– until the depletion of supply, demand, or both.
But today, Brazil is looking at a new kind of boom: the rapid creation of a Brazilian middle class. From 2005 to 2009, the percentage of Brazil’s population living under the poverty line fell from 33.7 percent to just 21.4 percent, according to the World Bank. In 2011, the country’s income inequality fell to its lowest point in 50 years. And between 2001 and 2009, the country’s poorest 10 percent saw a 7 percent income growth rate per year, compared to only a 1.7 percent growth rate for the wealthiest 10 percent.
Unlike trees or gold, the stuff of this boom won’t run out anytime soon. As of 2009, 42 million Brazilians were surviving on the equivalent of two U.S. dollars a day or less. Despite recent progress, poverty is still an enormous problem in Brazil, across sprawling urban favelas and languishing rural communities alike.
Fernando Chiado, a 23-year-old college graduate who lives in São Paulo, sees these realities all around him.
“We’re all excited that we’re the world’s sixth biggest economy, but when you look around, we’re kind of poor,” he said. “The TV shows that everything’s changing, but I can’t see that,” he said.
And he’s right. For Brazil’s position on the world stage, middle class growth is good news. Disposable incomes and a stable consumer class attract investment from global corporations. Even within Brazil, the economic upturn has corporations partnering with academia, fostering an unprecedented entrepreneurial spirit evident in incubators and research centers springing up across the country.
But rush hour in São Paulo brings out barefoot street peddlers, earning their livelihood by selling snacks and water to whoever rolls down their window.
Windowless, sometimes roofless favelas lie just minutes from Galeão–Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport in Rio de Janeiro, displaying a Brazil nothing like the beachy, tourist paradise that outsiders imagine. Many appear largely unaffected by the middle-class boom.
Chiado says he’s fortunate enough to circumvent abject poverty. He has a sister in Los Angeles, where he was able to attend college. But back in Brazil, his four-year English degree has done him little good.
“I like it here, but I think things are kind of difficult,” he said. “It’s much more expensive than anywhere else. It makes me sick.”
According to Mercer, a U.S. consulting firm, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are the 12th and 13th most expensive cities in the world, respectively. The median price of a one-bedroom apartment in São Paulo’s city center is $704.85 USD a month– nearly three-fourths of the $963.30 USD median income after taxes.
“I have a college degree and I speak three different languages, but the only job I can find pays me about $1,000 USD a month,” Chiado said. “I want to live here, but I need to build my resume somewhere else.”
To do that, Chiado plans on attending graduate school in Australia.
But what about young Brazilians who can’t afford to get out? In large part, the answer to this question depends on primary and secondary education.
If a child can’t afford to attend a private high school, his or her chances of scoring high on the vestibular, a college entrance exam, diminish tremendously.
With high enough scores, students are accepted into free public universities. But without them, the only options are trade schools, low-quality private universities, or searching for a job.
“There are some public high schools that provide a good education, but they are very, very few.” said Laura Maia de Castro.
A 23-year-old university graduate from Rio de Janeiro, Maia de Castro works as an intern at the
daily newspaper Estadão do São Paulo. But in her free time, she also volunteers at Pre-Vestibular Comunitario Vetor, helping disadvantaged high school students prepare for the exam.
“It’s a cycle that builds on itself,” she said. “People who get into university from this kind of place come back to volunteer, because that’s something you want to pass on.”
However, Maia de Castro said that out of about 1,000 applicants yearly, only 120 make it into the program.
“You have to be good already. It’s not like if you can read or write, you get in,” she said. “These students just need someone to push them in the right direction, and then they go.”
For young Brazilians who make it into public university, the climb up the social ladder is far from over.
According to some, however, an increasingly globalized Brazil means employment prospects are looking up.
John Lyons, Brazil correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, argues that an influx of globalized companies is key in the creation of a strong middle class.
“A middle class is taking hold in São Paulo because they got into public university here and they were able to catch onto the benefits of globalization,” Lyons said. “Globalized companies aren’t class prejudiced.”
According to Lyons, college graduates who might have trouble landing a job with a Brazilian company because of their class status have better luck with companies from outside the country.
Companies like Boeing Brazil, for example, hired 18 students in 2012 from Science Without Borders, a federal government-funded program that allows Brazilian college students to study science abroad for a year.
Furthermore, Boeing offers summer internships to Brazilian college students, allowing them to get a foot in the global door.
“Many are able to come from nothing this way,” Lyons said.