Upwardly mobile in Brazil: Pedicures as a path from Rio slum to a mortgage
How one woman in Brazil used her high school education as a way out of poverty. Already, universal education has boosted half the Brazilian population into the middle class.
Rio de Janeiro
A paper cap corralling her long, curly hair and a white paper mask muffling the lilt of her salon gossip, Meire adjusts a neon ring of light and peers businesslike at the calloused foot of a client lying on a white leatherette recliner. Pedicures are serious business in this mecca of sun worship and sandals.Skip to next paragraph
As lowly a job as it may seem to bathe, poke, pluck, and massage other people's feet, this job is golden. It has boosted Meire up the socioeconomic ladder and out of the slums: By serving the middle and upper classes in her cubicle at Ipanema's Spa do Pé (Foot Spa), she has herself entered Brazil's burgeoning middle class.
"I love what I do," she often says, as she straightens up from hunching over a client's newly buffed feet. And that's despite a three-hour round-trip bus commute to work five days a week – and frequent house-call detours she makes for extra cash.
IN PICTURES: The Rising Global Middle Class
Meire, who asked that the Monitor not use her real name for security reasons, is living the middle-class dream that is spreading across the globe. Her income – the equivalent of $1,000 a month – has enabled her to get a mortgage on a small house on a tree-lined street 15 minutes from her parents' home in the giant Jacarezinho favela, or slum. Brazil's middle class, swelling with people like her who have achieved higher levels of education than their parents, is now estimated to include half the nation's population of 191 million. The burgeoning consumer appetite, say economists, buffered the country from the world recession that began in 2008: Unlike the United States and much of Europe, Brazil's economy is booming, with 7.5 percent gross domestic product growth in 2010.
Thanks to a constitutional provision for universal education enacted in 1987, Meire got a high school diploma. She worked at a General Electric light bulb factory for six years after high school. But when incandescent bulbs lost market share, the factory closed. Meire's diploma saved her: It qualified her to take an 18-month specialized salon course.
"Brazilians are consuming more because they're working more, and they're working more because they went to school," says economist Marcelo Neri, who last year produced the Getúlio Vargas Foundation study "The New Middle Class in Brazil: The Bright Side of the Poor." Mr. Neri adds that enrollment in technical schools such as the one where Meire got her training grew 75 percent from 2004 to 2010.
The favela where Meire grew up is famous for a section where drug addicts openly use crack, undisturbed. And security is hardly provided by police: She recalls how she and a companion awoke in a favela apartment four years ago surrounded by police who threw a packet of cocaine on their bed in a mistaken-identity extortion bid.