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BRAZIL: Inequality Declines in Rio as Rich Get Poorer

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 2 2010 (IPS) - The huge gap between the poorest and richest neighbourhoods of Brazil’s most famous city shrank between 1996 and 2008. But the news is not as good as it sounds, because the decline in inequality was due to lower incomes in the richer zones, rather than to an increase in wealth in the “favelas” or shantytowns.

A study, titled “Desigualdade e favelas cariocas: a cidade partida está se integrando?” (Inequality and Favelas in Rio: Is the divided city becoming integrated?) was commissioned by the Rio de Janeiro mayor’s office and carried out by the private Social Studies Centre at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV), and was based on an idea in the 1994 book by journalist Zuenir Ventura, “Cidade partida” (Divided City).

The title of Ventura’s book clearly depicted the situation in the city: the enormous social gap between what are described as the “paved zones” of the city, with asphalted roads and spectacular bays, and the “morros” or hills, where many of Rio’s favelas are located.

“The two parts of the divided city seem to have come closer together in terms of income. The closing gap is due to a fall in purchasing power in the paved zones, not to a real increase in income in the favelas,” concludes the report, based on statistics like per capita income.

In the poorest districts, income per person rose from an average of 282 dollars a month in 1996 to 289 dollars in 2008, while in the rest of the city per capita income fell from 833 dollars a month to 752 dollars, over the same period.

The proportion of people below the poverty line — set by the FGV at an income of less than 82 dollars a month — also increased in Rio, from 9.43 percent in 1996 to 10.18 percent in 2008.

The growth in poverty in Rio was not due to the favelas, where the poverty rate fell from 18.6 to 15.1 percent in the 12-year period, but to a 1.5 point increase in the poverty rate in the wealthier areas in the south of the city, where it rose to 9.4 percent of the population.

“The city is less divided in terms of income, but that’s not necessarily good news,” the study’s coordinator, economist Marcelo Neri, told IPS.

Neri said that poverty statistics in Rio had evolved differently from the figures in Brazil as a whole. In this country of 193 million people, the poverty rate plunged from 28.8 percent to 16 percent of the population, between 1996 to 2008.

In terms of the decline in the poverty rate, “what happened in the favelas is a bit more consistent with the rest of Brazil,” he said.

He attributed this sign of progress to higher earnings from employment, a sector that showed improvement in every indicator, including employment rate, years of study and wages.

“The labour market is stronger in the favelas, where there has been a boom,” Neri said.

According to the Instituto Pereira Passos, attached to the mayor’s office, in the city of Rio de Janeiro some 800,000 people live in the favelas, equivalent to 13.3 percent of the total population.

Neri said other indicators of “the city being less divided” included public services, which have improved in both the favelas and middle-class neighbourhoods. In the poor communities, he attributed this to local development initiatives like the “Favela Bairro” (Shantytown-to-Neighbourhood) improvement programme that upgraded services and housing.

Lighting and piped water services have generally improved. The entire population now has electric light and 98 percent has access to piped water.

Neri said that 94 percent of people in the favelas had piped water in 2007-2008, compared to 90 percent in 1996-1997.

In other areas progress has been slower. Garbage collection is still markedly worse in the poor neighbourhoods, with a collection rate of 67 percent, than in the rest of the city, where 92 percent is collected.

Schooling has improved in Rio de Janeiro as a whole, as it has in the rest of Brazil, but in Rio’s favelas progress has been limited, Neri said.

On average, favela residents had five years of schooling in 1996, compared to 8.8 years in the rest of the city. In 2008, schooling in the favelas had risen to 6.6 years, against an average of 9.9 years in the middle-class neighbourhoods.

If educational trends continue as they have in the past 12 years, “it will take about 60 years to achieve equality in the city,” said Neri, who pointed out that education is a vital issue because there are so many young people in the favelas.

Another issue is the “digital divide,” which has widened considerably between the rich and poor areas of the city, from a difference of 22 percentage points in 2001 to one of 37 points in 2006, the period for which data were available.

The reduction in inequality between the favelas and so-called paved zones has ultimately come about because “there has been stagnation in some cases, and worsening in others. We might say the favelas worsened to a lesser extent,” said Neri with irony.

The purpose of the study is to guide future public policies in the city of Rio, and especially in the favelas.

Neri predicted that the presence in some favelas of community policing units may bring about major changes that will be reflected in future reports, as the present study was carried out before they were introduced.

The government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, his former minister and presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff who is tipped to win the October elections, and her main rival José Serra, are already talking about extending this model to other cities in the country.

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