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Are the Protests in Brazil Due to Falling Inequality Levels?

The Brazilian middle class is bigger than ever, and that's why they're so fed up.
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This past Monday, in an attempt to calm the nation’s growing discontent, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff proposed a vote to amend the country’s constitution. “The streets are telling us that the country wants quality public services, more effective measures to combat corruption ... and responsive political representation,” she stated. The nation nodded, took note, and called malarkey. Five hundred people protested Tuesday on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, and "tens of thousands" marched on Wednesday. As Brazil’s snowballing protests hinge on a widening disillusionment with government, the president’s call for reform has done little to pacify a distrustful populace.

As Brazil's economic prospects improve, the expectations for better public services grow.

What was sparked by a 20-cent bus fare increase has now grown into a thousand-plus movement backboned by Brazil’s rising middle class. The Brazilian government states that, over the past decade, 31 million people have entered the middle class, bringing the total number of middle-class citizens to 95 million, or 52 percent of the total population. This increase is part of an overall Latin American trend; a recent World Bank report states that in 2011, for the first time, more Latin Americans were living as part of the middle class than living in poverty. But a growing middle class demands an adjustment in policy. In her report for the Council on Foreign Relations, Senior Fellow Isobel Coleman argues, “The trajectory of emerging democracies depends fundamentally on whether political democratization can also deliver shared opportunity and inclusive growth to materially improve people’s lives.”

To sum up, as Brazil's economic prospects improve, the expectations for better public services grow. A mishandling of money is a major concern across the board. While the Brazilian government proposes to raise education spending to seven percent of their GDP, the gap in math skills between an average student in Shanghai and the average Brazilian student is still five school years—due to a “serious degree of corruption and mismanagement of education funds,” according to the World Bank. Spending on Brazil’s Unified Health System (SUS) accounts for just 3.1 percent of GDP, and although health care is a constitutional right, SUS’s family doctors can only reach one out of two Brazilians. Meanwhile, the Olympics and the World Cup will cost Brazil an estimated $31.3 billion in public expenditures, equivalent to around 1.26 percent of GDP. In comparison, the poverty alleviation program Bolsa Familia accounts for just 0.5 percent of Brazil's GDP and covers more than 12 million families.

Inequality may be falling in Brazil, but unrest is rising. With more and more Brazilians desiring and requiring the services the country doesn’t provide despite one of the highest tax rates in the world at 36 percent, don’t expect it to end any time soon.