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Social Classes of Brazil

Social Classes

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.


For reasons of property transmission and religion, Brazilian society was originally strongly patriarchal, but there was also strong tension between rigid norms of Iberian origin and the extenuating circumstances of frontier life, where conditions were not favorable for compliance with the norms. The difficulty of putting Roman Catholic values into effective practice in the context of poverty, isolation, and unbalanced male/female sex ratios (number of men per 100 women) reinforced the Mediterranean double moral standard for men and women. Men were expected to demonstrate their masculinity, while proper women were supposed to remain virgins until marriage and to be faithful to their husbands. This double standard also favored frequent consensual unions, illegitimacy, and prostitution. Such behavior was not entirely acceptable but was tolerated more readily in Brazil, generally speaking, than in North America and the rest of Latin America.

Although women were allowed open access to schools and employment around the turn of the century and suffrage on a national level in 1933, they were not on an equal footing with men in family affairs. Men were automatically heads of households, and married women were legally subordinate to their husbands. Because of the inconvenience caused by informal remarriage, divorce was made legal in 1977. Under the constitution of 1988, women became entirely equal to men for all legal purposes.

Female participation in the labor force grew dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s, as a result of new employment patterns, especially the expansion of the services sector, and economic pressures on family income. Women are most commonly employed as domestic servants. The economic participation of women in Brazil rose from 18 percent in 1970 to 27 percent by 1980 and 30 percent by 1990 (although such figures might underestimate actual rates of participation by failing to include the informal activities that characterize small and/or household enterprises). More than 70 percent of women in the labor force are employed by the services sector (as compared with 42 percent of men), and women tend to be underrepresented among the formal labor force in agricultural and industrial activities. Patterns of labor force participation vary considerably by region. In the early 1990s, rates of female labor force participation ranged from 36.8 percent in Rio de Janeiro to 33.1 percent in the Northeast. In Brazil, as in most other countries in Latin America, rates of females participating in the job market appear to increase with education, especially the proportion of single educated women entering the formal sector rather than the informal and self-employed sectors.

There is a considerable wage gap between men and women. According to one recent estimate, the differential between women and men is less pronounced in urban areas (for example, women earn on average 77.8 percent of men's wages in Rio de Janeiro and 73.6 percent in São Paulo), and most pronounced in the Northeast (where, on average, women earn 63.5 percent of the wages of men). Average wages are also considerably lower in the Northeast, where women's average hourly wages are 42 percent of the prevailing average in Rio de Janeiro. According to recent economic studies, only a small portion (between 11 percent and 19 percent of wage differentials in the formal labor force) can be attributed to differences between men and women in their endowments (such as education or experience). For the most part, the wage gap probably reflects discriminatory practices.

Recent decades have also been characterized by significant changes in family structures. For example, the available data suggest a considerable increase over the past decades in female-headed households, which include the poorest of the poor, from 13 percent in 1970 to 16 percent in 1980 and 20 percent by the late 1980s. This process has been termed the "feminization of poverty." Once again, there are considerable differences among regions; in the urban North Region, for example, over 24 percent of households were headed by women in the late 1980s, while their relative share in the South was closer to 16 percent.

Despite persistent gender inequality, the status of women in Brazil is improving on various fronts. As a rule, there are as many females as males in schools, even at the highest levels, and professions that traditionally were dominated by males, such as law, medicine, dentistry, and engineering, are becoming more balanced in terms of gender, if there are not already more women students than men. More women than men are in the National Lawyers' Association (Associação Nacional dos Advogados). The attitudes and practices of young people are generally not as sexist as those of their parents, at least among youth of families with higher income and education.

Nevertheless, there are still relatively few women in positions of power. They have a significant, albeit limited, presence in high levels of federal government, although they have better representation at the state and municipal levels. Since the government of João Baptista do Oliveira Figueiredo (president, 1979-85), several female ministers have been in the cabinet, and in 1994 two women were candidates for vice president. By 1994 women made up only 7 percent of the Congress (see Women in Politics, ch. 4).

Women's movements grew in the 1980s, when a National Council on Women's Rights (Conselho Nacional de Direitos da Mulher--CNDM) was created. Originally, the feminist movement was closely connected to human rights movements and resistance to the military regime. In the 1980s and 1990s, attention shifted to violence against women, especially domestic violence and sexual abuse and harassment. One original response to this kind of problem was the creation of special police stations for women. Women's movements also mobilized support for reproductive health and rights, as defined in the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo.

Data as of April 1997



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