Trina Dalziel/Ikon Images/Corbis/LatinstockBrazil experienced a significant reduction in inequality from 1960 to the first decade of this century. Gains were made in access to education, income, and most public services, including electricity and trash collection. Some inequalities, however, stubbornly persist. Examples include coverage by sewer systems, which is severely restricted to wealthier neighborhoods, the difference in pay between men and women, and, especially, the difference in access to income and education between whites and non-whites (blacks and browns).
This information forms part of a rich and complex portrait of the changes that Brazil has gone through since 1960, developed by using data from the last six demographic censuses conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). The report is found in the book Trajetórias das desigualdades – Como o Brasil mudou nos últimos 50 anos (Trajectories of inequalities – how Brazil has changed in the past 50 years), published by Unesp.
The plural in the title points to an important aspect of the study: the concern over not restricting the analysis of inequality to the dimension of differences in income. The researcher group expanded the approach to encompass other parameters of inequality, such as the inequalities among regions of Brazil or between genders, broken down into various aspects of life in society—from religion to family structure, from migration to participation in politics.
“Inequality is a multidimensional phenomenon,” says the editor of the book, Marta Arretche, a professor of political science at the School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP) and director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM)—one of the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDC) supported by FAPESP—where the initiative for the study of those censuses was born. It became possible to explore the plurality of dimensions because of the diversity of the data collected every 10 years by IBGE but only now analyzed using advanced technologies designed to treat large volumes of information. “This study has an important new feature: it describes a combination, in time, of processes that have different histories,” Arretche says. She and 24 other researchers signed their names to 14 essays on five central themes—political participation, education and income, public policies, demographics, and the labor market.
Trina Dalziel/Ikon Images/Corbis/LatinstockThe researchers’ extensive analysis brings into focus the sharp decline in inequalities during the studied period. According to Arretche, this contradicts the evaluation that emerged in the 1990s, i.e., that democratization had failed in its role of bringing about the expected solutions to social problems. “In the introduction to Cidadania no Brasil  (Citizenship in Brazil), a classic work of Brazilian social sciences, José Murilo de Carvalho summarized an interpretation that was shared by many social scientists at the time,” she writes. “According to Carvalho, the enthusiasm for democracy had proven to be naïve. Victories on the political plane—direct elections at all levels, freedom of assembly and expression, universal suffrage—had not translated into a resolution of key problems in our society.”
At the same time, the study of the huge mass of census data showed that factors involved in the reduction in inequalities, such as democracy and access to education, are not sufficient to explain persistent imbalances such as those between whites and non-whites. “Democracy is an important tool for vocalizing the inequalities but not a sufficient condition for correcting them,” Arretche says. This has also been proven in recent decades in Europe, with the fraying of the European pattern of equality in the middle class, despite the continuity of the democratic regimes, formerly seen almost consensually as a guarantor of well-being for the entire population.
Access to education
In Brazil, although the public policies of the democratic period had begun at the very outset to “pay the social debt,” the 1990 Census numbers show that the dawn of income inequality also occurred during the first civil government, the José Sarney administration. Meanwhile the data from the 1960 Census revealed a low degree of inequality, even if provoked by the homogeneity of poverty in a rural Brazil where only 20% of young people below the age of 15 had as much as four years of schooling.
To make the analyses in the chapter on racial inequality, which concentrated on access to education by whites and non-whites, researchers needed to refine the raw data in successive approaches in order to produce a more accurate picture of the status of blacks and browns as regards schooling and the extent to which it may—or may not—provide opportunities to rise in social class. “One of the indicators that educational gains are of limited use to explain the reduction in racial inequality is that blacks are consistently the last to benefit from any expansion of schooling,” says Márcia Lima, a professor in the Sociology Department of FFLCH-USP and author of the chapter, in partnership with Ian Prates, a doctoral student in the same department.
The situation observed in access to education is called, in technical terms, “saturation” and is manifested by a layered mechanism in which blacks and browns achieve equality with whites at a given educational level only when access becomes practically universal, as was the case with basic education at the recent turn of the century (the 2000 Census). The figures for secondary and higher education follow the same trend. “What happens is less a reduction in inequality between whites and non-whites and more an expansion of education to all groups, an outcome that also represents less inequality,” says the researcher. Lima says there is a tendency to ignore the racial criterion as a factor that would explain inequalities; in fact, this information was not even collected in the 1970 Census. That is why, and because of the finding that access to blacks in higher education was practically nil in 1960, the data available to the authors of this chapter began with the 1980 Census.
According to a projection made in the first decade of this century by the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA), and cited in the article by Márcia Lima and Ian Prates, if the reduction in racial inequalities in income were to keep pace with what was observed between 2001 and 2007, it would take three decades for white and non-white groups to achieve the same income, on average. Even so, there are factors that could delay that already distant future, such as lengthy economic crises and an increase in unemployment.
Other analyses of data by the two sociologists show how sensitive the situation is to variables related to social prestige and resistant structures. The closer the studies come to the top of the social pyramid, the more often the racial factor manifests itself as a brake on ascension. As a criterion for comparison, one of the approaches in the research adopted two groups, classified by professional academic training, one of them composed of “imperial professors,” those with the highest average salaries in 1980: medicine, law, and engineering. The other group was composed of professors in the three lowest average salary levels in that same year: language and literature, history, and education sciences. The collected data confirmed that not only were fewer blacks part of the first group, but there were also salary differences between blacks and whites who boasted the same diploma and were in the same occupational group. Another approach revealed yet another aspect of racial inequality: the children of black parents who earned a college degree have a smaller chance of getting into college than the children of white parents in the same situation.
Márcia Lima and Ian Prates adhere to the line of theoretical interpretation that “questions whether social legacy is sufficient to account for the social differences between blacks and whites in Brazil.” Traditional theoretical models considered the expansion of access to income and schooling as the only means necessary to end racial disparity. The researchers believe, however, that discrimination, a factor very difficult to measure using quantitative surveys such as censuses, must be taken into account. There are some relevant qualitative studies, according to Márcia Lima, but they lie outside the realm of the data collected by the censuses. Even so, says Lima, there are numbers that clearly point to discrimination, such as the fact that fewer blacks are employed in the private sector than in public service where the selection of entrants is usually made by competitive means (i.e., “blindly.”) “Although racial discrimination is prohibited by law, the criteria for winning approval via a job interview has a much heavier subjective load,” the researcher observes.
CEM – Center for Metropolitan Studies (nº 2013-07616-7); Grant Mechanism Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDC); Principal Investigator Marta Arretche (FFLCH-USP); Investment R$7,124,108.20 for the entire project (FAPESP).
LIMA, M. and PRATES, I. Desigualdades raciais no Brasil: Um desafio persistente. Article in the book Trajetórias das desigualdades. Como o Brasil mudou nos últimos cinquenta anos, by Marta Arretche (org.). Editora Unesp/CEM, 2015.