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Family Savings whittled away; Brazilians battle 100% inflation

By James Nelson GoodsellLatin America correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 1981

Recife, Brazil

Ivete Andrade de Sousa looks up from the open magazine in her hands and says to no one in particular: "Why can't government keep inflation down and give us a chance to get ahead?"

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There are murmurs of assent from others waiting patiently in the bus line on the edge of the lovely tree-shaded plaza in front of the Palacio das Princesas. The ornate 18th-century palace once housed Portugal's rulers here; now it serves the governors of Pernambuco state in Brazil's northeast.

Ivete is angry, as are many Brazilians, with her country's soaring inflation. In 1980, it exceeded 100 percent. This escalating rate is undercutting the upward social mobility that, even in this impoverished part of the country, was beginning to give hope to Brazilians during the early 1970s.

Inflation is taking its heaviest toll on the lower middle class -- people like Ivete, who works in Lojas Americanos, a Brazilian dime-store chain, and her husband, Antonio, a truck driver.

When their first child, Joao, was born in 1973, they hoped that by 1980 they would have enough money put aside to buy a small house in the modern and expanding southern end of the city, where two of Antonio's truck-driver associates were buying homes.

With the arrival of Catarina in 1975 that hope grew more earnest and they were happy because their savings were beginning to build.

But as inflation began to eat into their joint incomes in the late 1970s, that hope dimmed -- and now has almost died.

The couple continues to live in a rented two-room apartment "in which we huddle like rats in a horrible slum," to quote Ivete.

"There is no hope that we will ever get out of it," she laments. Tears well up in her deep blue eyes, but they are quickly whisked away when she talks with love about Joao, now 8, and Catarina, 6.

"They take it very much in stride," she says. "And at least they have a school to attend.

"Antonio did not go at all. He taught himself to read on those long nights when he was 15, working as a trucker's helper on runs to Belem and Brasilia."

Ivete herself had just three years of schooling, but a neighbor who taught in a private school took a fancy to her and gave her "six years of free education at night."

Ivete and Antonio, both natives of Recife, have problems, but their experience -- and that of their children -- is happier than that of many Brazilians of the past several generations and even the current generation.

Education is a part of their lives.

Here in the northeast, one of the poorest parts of a sprawling land of 125 million people, education is not readily available despite massive government spending in this state. At least 30 percent of the children never enter classrooms. And many of them apparently do not have the spark that motivated Antonio to learn on his own.

The government admits that at least half the region's population is illiterate.

But social needs -- including education and health care -- are now perceived to be what the area most needs. Both the Pernambuco government and the federal government in Brasilia have increased their educational budgets during the past few years.

"This is one of the reasons for inflation, for we are taking more government revenue for education and tax more," says Dalton Nelson Melo de Teixeira, a government economist.

While sipping sweet black coffee from a demitasse cup, he admitted that inflation is getting out of hand. "The answers are not easy in coming," he says. "Brazil must spend to build an infrastructure to take care of its soaring population."