Tens of millions of Brazilians have risen out of poverty over the past decade in one of the world’s great economic success stories. The reasons are many: strong overall economic growth, fueled by exports. A rise in the minimum wage. A more educated workforce. And big government spending programs, including direct payments to extremely poor families.
But becoming middle class in Brazil means a better life, not an easy one. The new, lowest rung of the middle class is what in the U.S. would be called the working poor, with monthly incomes of between $500 and $2,000.
Yet this group is driving consumer spending in Brazil as they cobble together enough money to buy a television, a cell phone or pay for their children to go to a private school.
In the northeastern city of Recife, I stopped in at the Walt Disney School. It has a crenellated roof that makes it look vaguely like a castle. Paintings of Mickey and Minnie Mouse are over the boys’ and girls’ rooms.
The school isn’t sponsored by Disney; the founder is just crazy about Disney characters. The place is bare bones, with paint peeling in the courtyard and no computers in the classrooms.
But it’s a step up for the new middle class.
This is where I meet Susana Raysa de Carvalho, 16, who pushed her parents to send her here.
“I told my parents I wanted to come to this school because I felt the public school was holding me back,” she says. “The teachers were bad. Sometimes they wouldn’t even show up.”
School is the first step, Susana says, because before you can have anything, you have to have a good education.
When she arrives home after school, Susana gets a kiss from her father Roberto. The family also includes Susana’s mother Enilda, and her sister Sandra, 22, who’s trained as a nurse.
A Modest Apartment
They share a tiny apartment in a crumbling, working-class neighborhood. There’s a little kitchen and a small area to eat, with a velvet painting of the Last Supper above the table.
There is no couch or comfortable chairs. One bedroom is for the parents, the other for the two girls to share. Both rooms are just big enough for the beds with a little room to spare.
“It’s small, but it’s cozy,” Roberto says.
Enilda gives me a tour and points proudly to some recent purchases. She explains that last year her husband got a promotion and he used the money to buy all kinds of stuff: kitchen cabinets, a microwave, smart phones for the girls and a flat screen television.
I sit down to talk with Roberto and Enilda de Carvalho about their lives, and how different they are from their parents’ lives.
‘Study, Study, Study’
It’s a typical story for this part of Brazil . Both sets of parents grew up in the countryside. They had to quit school early to start working: at ages 10, 12, 15. One went to work in a fabric factory, another as a mechanic, one was a seamstress and another a farmer.
Roberto’s father grew corn, beans, manioc and vegetables. It was enough to feed the family most of the time, he says. There was no running water or electricity.
When I ask if life back then very hard, Roberto pauses and breaks down in tears. It takes him several minutes to compose himself.
“It was very hard,” he says. “The financial hardship was very great.”
The main lesson he got from his parents, he says, was “Study, study, study.”
So he moved to the big city, Recife, and found a series of better paying jobs. He met and married Enilda and now works maintaining a fleet of trucks.
He supports the family on about $900 a month. The rent sets them back about $130 and Susana’s private school tuition costs about the same.
Technically, this family has joined Brazil’s middle class. They earn enough to be in that lowest rung – it’s called class C. But Roberto doesn’t think they’re middle class. They don’t have enough money to buy a house, or a car, he notes.
“As parents, we always want a better future. If they work hard, they can have a better future than what we had,” Enilda says of her daughters.
Before we leave, I ask what’s the one thing that would make their life better, or easier. And they don’t even have to think about it: their own house.
But Roberto figures the family would need about $40,000 in cash to buy a home.
The older daughter, Sandra, chimes in, “I think that’s our task now. That’s a dream of mine. And I’m definitely going to reach it.”
“She says it so many times,” Elinda adds, “I think it’s going to stick!”