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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.

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Her parents still live there, in a house of concrete rooms stacked atop each other in three stories, so close to a house across the alley that a neighbor can lean over and serve lemonade to visitors.

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Even for those most determined to get ahead in life, favelas are full of pitfalls. Meire's first boyfriend, a cocaine addict, promised he'd stop using drugs if she had sex with him. She became pregnant at 16 – in 1994 – with her first daughter. But the boyfriend was killed in 2001 by a drug lord because his habit was leading to crimes that stirred up trouble for the community.

Despite being left alone in difficult circumstances, in November 2008 Meire performed some financial acrobatics and took out one of the Brazilian government's increasingly available low-cost 20-year loans to buy a 1930s-era yellow two-bedroom house with a front porch.

"My mother said 'You're crazy,' and I said 'You get things done if you're crazy,' " Meire recalls. " 'Otherwise I'll be here in Jacarezinho seeing the days go by.' "

Later, she made a sentimental discovery: The bungalow with its decorative stone chimney had been her mother's dream home. As a child, her mother had walked by it on the way to school, dreaming daily of it being hers. "She wept when she saw my new bedroom set," says Meire, who paid the equivalent of $47,000 for the home.

To realize her mother's dream a generation later and make her down payment, Meire withdrew the equivalent of $4,700 from her government-stipulated workers' fund account, and sold her furniture. She also had to prove to the bank providing the home loan that she had a hefty balance in her account. But after scrounging for the down payment, she didn't have a hefty balance. So friends shifted cash into her account to make it look that way.

This is what economists call "social capital." The fact that Brazilians turn mostly to family and friends for help is one of the fragilities of the new middle class. Analysts say government institutions need to be stronger, more reliable and accountable, offering greater access to microcredit and low-cost housing.

Meire's oldest daughter, now 16, was joined by a half sister, now 12. Thanks to their mom's determination and resourcefulness, both study at a private school and plan on college; they share a computer and regularly use the Internet. In summer, all three sleep in one air-conditioned bedroom.

It is a peaceful place Meire has made for her family. Though she leaves a bill unpaid each month to make ends meet, she says her financial scramble is nothing.

"In the favela you wake up in the night hearing shootouts," she sighs, stretched out one late-summer Sunday morning in her air-conditioned bedroom. "The peace of mind [here] is worth the cost."

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