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What do poor people want? Lessons from Brazil

April 27, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

This is probably one of the most important question if one is interested in making the poor better off. Giving the poor what they want rather than what other think they need is arguably the only way to improve their lives. So what do poor people want?

Conventional wisdom holds that since the poor are made poor by the present status quo they should be in favor of any radical change of this status quo. The case of the Brazilian poor shows however that such claim is far from reality in some circumstances. According to the Brazilian political scientist André Singer, the poor in Brazil want to avoid social disorder. As Perry Anderson puts it in the London Book Review: “instability is a spectre for the poor, whatever form it takes – armed struggle, price inflation or industrial action.” It follows that, paradoxically, street vendors and slum dwellers desire stability as much as builders and bankers do. The consent that president Lula enjoyed amongst the poor lies in this key insight. Anderson illustrates this point:

The economic orthodoxy of Lula’s first term, and the lesser but continuing caution of his second, were thus more than simple concessions to capital. They answered to the needs of the poor, who, unlike workers in formal employment, cannot defend themselves against inflation and dislike strikes even more than the rich, as a threat to their daily lives. So, coming after Cardoso, Lula cut inflation still further, even as he attended to popular consumption, pioneering a ‘new ideological road’ with a project combining price stability and expansion of the internal market. In this, Singer suggests, he displayed his sensitivity both to the temperament of the masses and to the political culture of the country at large, each in their own way marked by a long Brazilian tradition of conflict avoidance. 

In sum, Brazilian poor were made better off by the simultaneous pursue of Ordem e Progresso. The key question for other governments is if the latter (social progress) can be pursued concurrently with the former (stability, order) when spectacular rate of economic growth, such as those in Brazil, are not present.

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