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Brazil’s Grand Illusion

News & Features | February 18, 2014

Lola Rosa, a domestic worker in Rio de Janeiro, recently quit her job of 13 years because she thought her wages were too low. “I’m tired of working in other people’s homes,” she said. “If they don’t pay me a decent sum it isn’t worth it to me.” Her employer, Adriana Saggese, an architect, had a different story. “She took more days off than days on, her travel costs were too high, and she asked for a raise almost every month,” she told the Observer on Feb. 7. “By the end of the year I couldn’t afford it anymore.”

This scene is a typical result of decreasing income inequality in Brazil. Despite the widespread belief that Brazil is one of the biggest economic success stories in recent years, inequality in Brazil is still rampant.

Today the percentage of Brazilians living below the poverty line has fallen below 24 percent. A new middle class now makes up 52 percent of the popula- tion, Márcio Pochmann, president of the Institute of Applied Economic Research, told the Observer in a phone interview on Feb. 6.

For Brazilians like Saggese, the costs of employing domestic workers like Rosa outweigh the benefits. Reliance on domestic workers may be coming to an end. For many domestic workers, working in other people’s homes just isn’t cutting it anymore.

Live-in domestic workers and other minimum wage earners have historically made up 35 percent of the Brazilian population. Most upper- and middle- class households have at least one live-in maid responsible for cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Brazilian maids often stay with one family for their entire working lives. Those who don’t live with families usually live in shanty-towns called favelas.

Lola’s 21 year old daughter, Jessica said that she would never dream of being a live-in domestic worker, though she admitted that she had been trained to work in the industry since she was a child. “I used to go with my mom to Adriana’s house because I couldn’t stay at home alone,” Jessica said. “So from a young age I was cleaning with my mom, cooking with my mom, changing diapers with my mom. It got to the point that when my mom took days off, I would work instead.”

Following in her mother’s foot- steps was never Jessica’s plan, but like many Brazilian teenagers, the public school system was failing her and work started to take precedence over school. “My teachers didn’t show up. I did horribly on exams. I was already really old for my grade and I was going to be held back again, so I wanted to quit school and become a full-time housekeeper so I could make my own money,” she said.

Then Saggese stepped in, funding Jessica’s switch to a private school, hoping that higher quality academics would reignite a passion for any profession other than housekeeping. This kind of close relationship between domestic workers and their employers is common in Brazil.

Pochmann said that the new class environment is the result of economic growth, promotion of social programs like Bolsa Familia (similar to the U.S. welfare system), and a series of political incentives aimed at lower classes beyond simply raising the minimum wage. “The gains of our economic productivity are no longer being spread only among the wealthy,” Pochmann said, “but the wealth continues to be concentrated in the elite class on a level that is simply indecent compared to other countries.”

Many Brazilians agree with Pochmann. Despite this decreasing gap in income inequality, and the progress fighting poverty, Brazilians had expected more from the past few years of economic growth, which has now stagnated.

Brazil sustains a higher daily death toll from crime than the daily death toll of the Syrian civil war. Preparations for the 2014 World Cup in Rio have already cost more than the past three World Cups combined, though all of the stadium construction is running late, and no work has been done on the airport, the surrounding roadways, or the public transportation systems. Brazil earned 72nd place on the 2013 Corruption Perception Index, below Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Kuwait, and Botswana.

“That,” Jessica Rosa said in a phone interview on Feb. 5, “is what the protests were all about. And, of course, [President Dilma Rouseff ’s] lavish lifestyle.” Rosa is referring to corruption scandals that have become so common they no longer make headlines. Politicians have set up programs for poor Brazilians to succeed; yet those same politicians have been caught stealing large sums of taxpayer money. The culture of Brazil is changing, but no one can say if it’s for better or for worse.

Adriana Saggese’s main concern isn’t finding a new live-in domestic worker. According to her, many middle- and upper-class homes are adapting to lives that require far less outside maintenance. With an expanding middle class and college enrollment at an all-time high, Brazilians know they’re supposedly one of the great economic success stories. But with rampant corruption, they still feel stuck. “We’re somewhere in between the first and third world and we have to deal with all of those problems,” Saggese said.