Brazil: Extreme poverty on the rise as elections loom

Some living in the places hardest hit say they’ve become disillusioned by politicians’ empty promises.

In greater Sao Paulo, extreme poverty grew by 35 percent in 2017 to 3.8 million people and isolated semi-rural regions like Parelheiros [Gustavo Oliveira/Al Jazeera]
In greater Sao Paulo, extreme poverty grew by 35 percent in 2017 to 3.8 million people and isolated semi-rural regions like Parelheiros [Gustavo Oliveira/Al Jazeera]

Sao Paulo, Brazil – Marcos Alves da Silva stands in the kitchen of his home where he lives with his wife Maria de Lourdes, their seven children and four grandchildren.

They live on Morro da Mutuca, a hillside community of red brick homes, flanked by Atlantic Forest, with unpaved streets that turn to thick mud when it rains, in Parelheiros, a poor semi-rural district on the far-flung outskirts of Sao Paulo.

Since Brazil plunged into a deep recession three years ago, 40-year-old Marcos finds work increasingly scarce. The informal day jobs he does as a bricklayer or handyman pay less than they used to and he often ends up going to the streets to collect scrap and recyclables to sell.

“In the past if I earned 100 Brazilian real [about $24], it would be enough to buy lots of things at the supermarket,” he says. But these days he’ll work for just 30 real (less than $7.50).

The family’s kitchen cupboard contains just half a bag of rice, some flour and salt. The fridge is broken. Inside are some bottles of water and a plastic bag filled with small chunks of pink meat.

“These are the leftover fatty bits, we ask the butcher shop to give them to us,” he tells Al Jazeera.

In less than two weeks, Brazilians will head to the polls to elect new president and representatives, but voters here in Parelheiros have little faith in politicians, with extreme poverty and hunger on the rise. Experts blame high unemployment from the recession and falling incomes, coupled with deep austerity measures. 

High unemployment, extreme poverty

In the run-up to Brazil’s last elections in 2014 unemployment was at a record low and the country was removed from the UN Hunger Map.

Exact figures on how much extreme poverty has risen since then are hard to come by. 

According to one study undertaken by Action Aid Brazil and Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (Ibase), extreme poverty rose from 5.2 million people in 2014 to 11.9 million in 2017, based on the July 2017 definition of extreme poverty, which includes those living on less than 102.44 real (about $25) a month. 

For Sao Paulo’s LCA Consultancy, using data from Brazil’s Continuous National Household Sample Survey (PNAD), extreme poverty rose from 13.3 million in 2016 to 14.8 million in 2017, using the World Bank’s definition of living on $1.90 or less a day.

Unemployment remains stubbornly high at 12.3 percent or 12.8 million people, according to Brazil’s Institute of Geography and Statistics, a scant recovery since its 13.7 percent peak in early 2017.

Experts say unemployment rates will continue to recover slowly, with most the qualified the first to benefit and the poorest last.

“Any initial economic recovery will not reach people in extreme poverty,” says Cosmo Donato, an economist at LCA. “They are historically disadvantaged.”

Brazil’s northeast concentrates the highest number of people living in extreme poverty with 8.1 million in 2017 according to LCA [Gustavo Oliveira/Al Jazeera]

Marcos’s wife Maria has been unemployed for two years and does odd cleaning jobs when she can.

“Thank god, something small appears for me every now and again but it’s really difficult,” 43-year-old Maria says.

The family hasn’t had cooking gas for the last six months because of recent price hikes. Instead, they cook using an electric hob and pan that Marcos found in the street and fixed. As with the other homes in the community, they use pirated electricity.

Brazil’s northeast concentrates the highest number of people living in extreme poverty with 8.1 million in 2017 according to LCA.

Here, in greater Sao Paulo, extreme poverty grew by 35 percent in 2017 to 3.8 million people and isolated semi-rural regions like Parelheiros – a three-hour bus ride from the city’s business centre – are especially bad off.

“It’s a region of extremely high social vulnerability,” says Adriana Rezende da Silva, head of the local government’s social assistance programme for the region of Parelheiros and neighbouring Marsilac.

‘I won’t vote for anyone’

Here, apathy for the upcoming elections is high.

“I won’t vote for anyone, all they do is make promises,” Marcos says.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s most popular politician, who is credited with implementing social policies that lifted tens of millions out of poverty, is in jail serving a 12-year sentence for corruption.

He says he is innocent and the charges are politically motivated to prevent him from running again.

“I’d vote for Lula, but he’s in prison, so I don’t know,” said Rubens Moreira da Silva, 50, who didn’t mention Lula’s replacement, former Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad.

Brazilians head to the polls to elect new president and representatives in October, but voters in Parelheiros have little faith in politicians [Gustavo Oliveira/Al Jazeera]

According to the Datafolha polling institute, 12 percent of voters will abstain from this election, 49 percent of whom are low-income voters, with a family income of less than two monthly minimum salaries of BR$954. (about $230). Of the five percent of undecided voters, 64 percent fall into this income bracket.

Current frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right former army captain, polls poorest among low-income voters.

Rubens has health problems but works every day as a handyman to support the nine people that live in his small house. His son Paulo Sergio da Silva, 23, has been unemployed for six months.
He and his girlfriend Aline Cristina Ferreira da Silva, 19, have a six-month-old daughter.

“It’s all really difficult these days with this crisis,” he says.

Their neighbour Maura Araujo da Silva, 58, has been unemployed for four years and survives doing occasional cleaning jobs. Her son Marcello Cardoso dos Santos, 34, who has anemia, has been unemployed for more than 10 years and does odd jobs at a local Evangelical Church.

Maura receives 90 Brazlian real (about $22) each month from Brazil’s “family grant”, a government programme affected by cuts. About 1.5 million families were removed in between 2016 and 2017.

“It’s barely enough to pay for one canister of cooking gas,” she says.

Unemployed Elionai Moreira, 24, says it would be a miracle if her gas lasts long enough to cook a pot of beans. She said she and her husband Fernando skip meals in order to feed their two young children and make repairs to the house they are building.

“We have to choose between eating and fixing the house,” she tells Al Jazeera.

“It is likely that Brazil will shortly return to the United Nations hunger map,” says Francisco Menezes, an economist and researcher for Action Aid and Ibase.

The United Nations hunger map is defined by more than five percent of the country not consuming the recommended number of calories a day.

Menzes blames a combination of high unemployment due to the recession and austerity, which began under former president Dilma Rousseff in 2015.

Austerity then accelerated under current president Michel Temer when Rousseff was controversially impeached. According to Menzes, Brazil has returned to levels of extreme poverty of 2005.

“Brazil has gone back 12 years in three,” he says.

Source: Al Jazeera

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