Last September, the Brazilian government released a study, Vozes da Classe Média (Voices of the Middle Class), noting that 53 percent of Brazilians are currently in the middle class. Of these, 80 percent are Afro-Brazilian. The data was covered extensively in the Brazilian press and sparked a debate about the extent to which Brazil’s recent economic growth has generated an improved standard of living for its overall population.
On one side, optimists celebrated the data, which showed improved social mobility for about 30 million people.
The Brazilian middle class is the third fastest growing in the world, trailing only India and China. Brazil’s middle class is urban, concentrated in the southeast (45 percent) and fascinated with technology. According to the Voices of Brazil study, if this social class were a country, it would be the twelfth most populous country in the world with 104 million people, just below Mexico.
On the other hand, skeptics said that Brazil’s middle class was different from the middle class in countries like the United States, where the middle class not only consumes goods and services but is also educated and enjoys an overall strong quality of life. Brazil’s historical lack of investment in education, its violence and its high levels of corruption have been barriers to complete social growth.
The Voices of the Middle Class study noted that a citizen with a monthly income of just over $500 is considered “middle class.” But this is a questionable definition due to the high cost of living in Brazil. Furthermore, the increase in consumer power in Brazil has not necessarily meant improved access to safety and education. According to statistics released recently by the UN’s Global Report on Human Settlements, 70 percent of Brazilians feel insecure in Brazilian cities. The Inter-American Development Bank reported that roughly 33 percent of the Brazilian population lives in poor-quality housing.
Therefore, one of Brazil’s biggest challenges is to improve the quality of public goods such as health, education, transportation, and safety.
In its preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, the country has been spending on roads, public transportation and airports. In addition, the Brazilian government just launched a new program targeting the very poor called Brasil Sem Miséria(Brazil Without Poverty). This program will invest $20 billion annually to erase the extreme poverty of the 16.2 million poorest Brazilians. The plan combines income transfers and access to public services in education, health, welfare, sanitation, and electricity. The main target is the population in the Northeast, the poorest region in the country.
Consumerism by itself cannot lead Brazil to prosperity. Without a real process of inclusion, Brazil’s high rates of violence and loss of productive young people to drugs and crime will continue. Brazil is home to 14 of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world, according to Mexico’s Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y la Justicia Penal (Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice). The crack cocaine epidemic in Brazil’s slums is tied to poor education, a lack of opportunities and poor infrastructure in neighborhoods that have no libraries or community centers. The country needs to take advantage of this moment to increase the number of small businesses, invest in more long term projects, and, most importantly, increase the budget for education.
Austrian writer Stefan Zweig published a book in 1941 called Brazil: The Country of the Future, which says that Brazil is “destined undoubtedly to play one of the most important parts in the future development of our world.” Skeptical Brazilians have always jokingly added, “and it always will be.” But now Brazilians are hopeful that economic growth combined with social inclusion can make this promise happen. Only then can Brazil fulfill Zweig’s prophecy and become a global leader that provides a good quality of life to its people.
*Paulo Rogério is the co-founder of Instituto Mídia Étnica in Salvador, Brazil. His Twitter account is @PauloRogerio81.