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Brazil's New Middle Class: A Better Life, Not An Easy One

Sep 18, 2013
Originally published on September 18, 2013 8:01 pm

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!"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And reporting from Brazil this week, I'm Melissa Block.

Before we came here, I kept hearing about the new Brazilian middle class, about the tens of millions of Brazilians who've been listed out of poverty over the last decade. There are a number of explanations for that: strong overall economic growth fueled by Brazil's exports, a rise in the minimum wage, a more educated workforce and big government spending programs, including direct payments to extremely poor families.

This new lowest rung of the middle class is what we would call the working poor. Their monthly income bracket: between just $500 and $2,000. But it's this group that's driving consumer spending in Brazil, these tens of millions of people who can now cobble together enough money to buy their first car, TV or cellphone or to 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 over the boys' and girls' bathrooms. The school isn't sponsored by Disney. The founder is just crazy about Disney characters. And it's bare bones: paint peeling in the courtyard, no computers in the classrooms. But it's a step up for the new middle class.

SUSANA RAYSA DE CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: This is where I meet 16-year-old student Susana Raysa de Carvalho.

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: She says, I told my parents I wanted to come to this school because I felt the public school was holding me back. The teachers were bad. Sometimes they wouldn't even show up.

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: School is the first step, Susana says, because before you can have anything, you have to have a good education. Back home after school, Susana gets a kiss from her father. Four of them live in a tiny apartment in a crumbling, working-class neighborhood: dad Roberto, mom Enilda and the daughters, Susana and her 22-year-old sister Sandra, who's trained as a nurse.

There's a little kitchen, a small area to eat with a velvet painting of the Last Supper above the table. No couch or comfortable chairs. One bedroom for the parents, one for the two girls to share, both just big enough for the beds with a little room to spare. Roberto apologizes. It's small, but it's cozy.

ENILDA RAYSA DE CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Enilda gives me a tour and points proudly to some recent purchases.

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: 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, smartphones for the girls.

There's a flat-screen television over here. When did you get the flat screen?

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: You bought the television in 2012 also. A lot of happiness in 2012. That was a very good year for your family, I think.

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: I sit down to talk with Roberto and Enilda de Carvalho about their lives and how different they are from their parents' lives. It's a typical story for this part of Brazil. Both sets of parents grew up in the countryside. The parents had to quit school early to start working. At ages 10, 12, 15, they went to work in a fabric factory as a mechanic, a seamstress, a farmer.

ROBERTO RAYSA DE CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Roberto's father grew corn, beans, manioc, vegetables, enough to feed the family, he says, most of the time. They had no running water, no electricity. And when I asked was life back then very hard, Roberto pauses and breaks down in tears.

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: I'm sorry.

It takes him several minutes to compose himself.

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: It was very hard, he says. The financial hardship was very great.

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Was your family hungry?

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: More or less, Roberto says. The main lesson he got from his parents in hopes that he'd have a better life?

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Study, study, study. So he moved to the big city, Recife, got a series of better paying jobs, met and married Enilda, and works now maintaining a fleet of trucks. He supports the family on about $900 a month. Their monthly rent is about $130. Susana's private school tuition costs about the same.

Now technically, this family has joined Brazil's middle class. They earn enough to be in that lowest rung. It's called class C. But here's the thing: Roberto doesn't think they're middle class.

CARVALHO: No.

BLOCK: They don't have enough money to buy a house or a car.

What are your hopes for your daughters, for Susana and for Sandra, about their life and how it might be different from yours?

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: As parents, Enilda says, we always want a better future. If they work hard, they can have a better future than what we had. Before we leave, I asked what's the one thing that would make their life better or easier. And they don't even have to think about it.

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: So you want to buy a home instead of renting the apartment that you have here. That would be essential (foreign language spoken).

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: You want to buy a house, also, certainly for your family. What would it take for you to be able to buy a house?

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

(LAUGHTER)

CARVALHO: Money, money.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: You need cash. You need money.

CARVALHO: Cash.

BLOCK: They'd need about $40,000, he figures, to be able to buy a house.

Well, good luck in finding and buying your house.

CARVALHO: OK.

SANDRA RAYSA DE CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: The older daughter, Sandra, chimes in: I think that's our task now. That's a dream of mine, she says, and I'm definitely going to reach it.

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: You're saying Sandra says it all the time. I want to work hard and earn enough money to be able to buy you and Dad a house.

CARVALHO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: She says it so many times, Enilda adds, I think it's going to stick.

Well, good luck. Thank you so much for talking with us today. (Foreign language spoken).

CARVALHO: OK. Thanks. Thank you very much.

BLOCK: And, Sandra, thank you.

CARVALHO: Thank you.

BLOCK: And, Susana, thank you.

CARVALHO: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Susana, Sandra, Enilda and Roberto de Carvalho, part of Brazil's new middle class, talking with me in Recife.

I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Melissa is reporting all this week from Brazil, along with producers Andrea Hsu and Greg Dixon. You can follow their adventures at consideringbrazil.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.