Social Classes

Brazil Table of Contents

Brazil inherited a highly stratified society from the colonial system and from slavery, which persisted for nearly three generations after independence in 1822. The legacy of sharp socioeconomic stratification is reflected in Brazil's highly skewed income distribution, among the world's worst (see Inequality and Poverty, ch. 3). The relatively high average per capita income (US$4,086 in 1995) masks deep inequality. During the postwar period, income concentration and regional disequilibrium did not change significantly despite numerous government policies aimed at greater equity. Poverty was widespread, reaching the lowest levels in the rural parts of the Northeast, but also including pockets of urban poverty in the largest cities in the developed regions. In 1990 the number of indigents suffering from extreme poverty (see Glossary) was estimated to be at least 32 million, about one-fifth of the country's total population. This included an estimated 9.6 percent of the residents of metropolitan areas, 18.4 percent of the population of other urban areas, and 42.8 percent of the rural population.

Socioeconomic inequality involves subtle forms of residential, educational, and workplace discrimination, in such ways that members of distinct socioeconomic strata tend to live, work, and circulate in different settings. The well-to-do live in chic neighborhoods, usually centrally located, go to private schools, drive or ride in cars, and shop at malls. The urban poor live in favelas or distant housing projects, take long bus trips to work, go to public schools or drop out, and shop at smaller supermarkets or local shops. The rural poor in the country's interior are practically invisible to the urban upper and middle classes.

Despite such social segregation, class solidarity is not strong. Instead of horizontal class ties, numerous cross-cutting vertical relationships involve personal dependence on individuals who have more property and prestige. Given the circumstances, these relationships of clientelism and paternalism are advantageous for both patrons and clients. Because of the lack of effective government services and real possibilities for class action, the poor have few alternatives but to seek the protection of patrons. The traditional rural forms of patronage have been described as colonelism (coronelismo --see Glossary), referring to the fact that rural bosses often had military titles (see The Old or First Republic, 1889-1930, ch. 1). Among other things, colonels (coronéis ) used their influence over their clientele for electoral purposes. Such vertical interpersonal ties continue to be stronger in rural areas, especially in the Northeast, but they also persist in other forms in urban settings and at various levels of the socioeconomic scale. Even members of the modern middle class tend to have lower-income persons or families dependent on them for such things as domestic employment and economic or health emergencies. They, in turn, seek help from powerful friends and relatives.

Contrary to dualistic stereotypes of Latin American societies, Brazilian class structure cannot be reduced to a wealthy landed elite versus masses of poor peasants and workers. The middle sectors or classes have been significant at least since the nineteenth century. Sectors of Brazil's population that were neither slave owners nor slaves began to grow in the colonial period, when craftsmen, shopkeepers, small farmers, freed slaves, and persons of mixed racial origin began to outnumber slave owners and eventually slaves. During the twentieth century, the middle sectors continued to grow. The present middle class does not own large properties, industries, or firms but also is not destitute. It consists largely of a technical work force--clerks, professionals, teachers, salespersons, public servants, and highly skilled workers. Its position is based more on knowledge and skills than on property. A surge of upward mobility strengthened the middle class during the "economic miracle" in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the same time, blue-collar workers with middle to low levels of skills constitute a lower middle class that is numerically very significant.

In addition to those formally employed, many workers are in the so-called informal economy (see Glossary), which includes self-employed businessmen and workers who do not have the legal protection of labor legislation. In 1990 the informal sector accounted for nearly half of the economically active population. The informal sector grows in times of recession because of unemployment and during times of prosperity, when opportunities for making money are more readily available. A survey released in 1996 by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (Fundação Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística--IBGE) showed that only 85 percent of those questioned wanted to seek formal employment.

Increasingly, the system of social stratification that was originally based on property (land or industry) has evolved in such a way that individuals who acquire special technical skills or know-how are able to earn reasonable incomes. Outside these two groups of propertied or skilled individuals lies a significant mass, perhaps a majority, that is excluded in the sense of limited participation in markets and poor access to government services, such as health, education, and sanitation.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress