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.

Chantal James/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Meire, a Brazilian pedicurist, has lifted herself out of a Rio de Janiero slum and bought a house. She qualified for the mortgage using 'social capital' - that is, with help from her friends.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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