Why average people don´t help the poor in Brazil

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View of Favela

I once read an article written by a foreigner (not residing in Brazil) who complained about the social differences in Brazil, and how someone can buy a home overlooking a favela and not help the people living there, or feel uncomfortable with the poverty they see from their windows.

A Brazilian actor Marcello Antony, who adopted a black child, was asked in an interview if he had helped other people (Brazilian journalists often ask stupid questions). He bluntly replied that he had tried but given up.

This stuck in my mind for years until I finally realized why he had said that.

After living 5 years in Brazil, I went through a very tough patch for around 2 years, which I am currently recovering from. During this time, I meet many of these people who Antony was referring to (check this link for a photo of the actor and his adopted son). Here are some stories:

a. Riri has 7 children. She is unemployed and has recently started selling and consuming crack with her “husband”. When asked if she will have more children she sniffs, “yeah, I´m gonna fill my mums house with ´em.” Her brother prohibits her from having any more children (the last two are undernourished), but she is now sporting a three-month looking belly which she denies even exists. She has also had 5 clandestine abortions.

b. I offered J to pay for her child´s schooling, a smart little boy who might have a better future if he could only study in better surroundings. She refused, as this would mean the government will cut her Bolsa Familia, which she religiously spends on herself (parties, clothes, etc).

c. M works as a full-time live-in maid at the home of an ex-Navy official. Three days after her pay-day, she asks for loans because the money has run out. Her sons take it all.

d. C returned to his wife after he heard she was receiving her government pension. He now goes to the bank, cashes her cheque (she is illiterate and afraid of leaving home) and disappears for days. He then returns with a small shopping bag and some meagre groceries. She makes enough to buy 2 cestas básicas a month. They live with 2 grandchildren and two daughters, who she must keep with this money. His money is never seen.

e. I offered my mother´s maid a place at home if she looked after my son for 2 hours a day. She would always complain, never clean the house, and sleep all day to be “ready” to go out with her boyfriend at night. I once caught her having a dinner party at home without my permission.

f. K beats her son every day for him to go to school because she needs the money from the Bolsa Familia to pay for her LCD TV instalments.

The stories go on and on. Some far more horrifying than the ones listed above. Sure, there are lots of great poor people in Brazil, but they are often overshadowed by the other members of their family. In order to improve their quality of life, these people have to leave their families and rebuild their lives as far from home as possible. This is also the case in Africa. What is yours is ours, goes the family motto.

So returning to the question of helping the poor. Why don´t more advantaged Brazilians help the less advantaged?  Because in one way or another they have lived through the experiences I have lived through. Because the gap is so massive, the beliefs, lifestyle and priorities are worlds apart. Lower and middle/high social classes don´t understand one another. A middle class family does not understand why a poor mother has 10 kids she cannot feed when they are struggling with 2. The poor think the other classes are “lucky” and do not perceive the effort needed to have a nice home, to pay for bills, to get a degree and a good job.  The poor (called, povo, in Brazil, which is more a matter of ideals than financial situation, and preferred over pobre, or poor, which is considered offensive) believe that anything “handed down” is “left overs” and is therefore not received with gratitude or taken advantage of.

I have many times seen families waste food that I would store in the fridge and reheat thousands of times before even considering the bin. Some examples:

G and his family are from the MST (Movimento Sem Terra, or crudely, landless movement) and were “awarded” land from the state government near our farm. I would visit them because their daughter played with my son and my parents would buy pigs from them. They received a fat cesta basica (basic grocery package) from the town council and school transportation. Their daughter rarely attended school because she “doesn´t like it much”. Whenever we stayed to eat, G´s wife would throw away the entire pan of rice and make fresh rice because “we never eat leftovers”.

A survey showed that Brazilians spend more of their Bolsa Familia on electronics than they do on food. I have often visited homes with 20 inch tv´s, dvd player and sound system, but no food in the fridge, ever. The house is falling apart, needs urgent basic attention, the kids need shoes because they are ashamed to go to school in flip-flops, but priorities are always focused elsewhere.

There is no argument here. It´s just how things are.

It´s not only a matter of educational disadvantages, but more a matter of civility, or lack thereof. Social rules and standards do not exist in poor communities (unless they are native Brazilians or lucky enough to be reigned by a disciplined head-of-family). Children are raised “by God” and no one takes responsibility of unsocial conduct, such as stealing. No one says please, no one says thank you. Parents don´t care if their kids do well at school, if they can read and write. They are given without asking and never learn to fight or ask for what they want. This creates anti-social adults who are rejected in other classes (when looking for a job, for instance) and who are pressured and sometimes prefer to continue the downward vicious cycle of their parents. They “get together” with anyone and have children without planning or wanting them. It´s the “normal” thing to do and not doing it sparks contempt and suspicion from family and community members. When it doesn´t work, they try again. Some abandon their offspring and start again with someone else, usually a brother´s ex or any single passing  woman with or without kids. Some men I have met simply allow a woman to live with them becuase “they need someone to take care of the house”. There is no love, no emotion, no committment. Their children from previous “arrangements” are left to their parents (usually the child´s grandmother). Poor people like to be surrounded by children and animals, although this does not mean they love them. There is no hugging, little smiling and no concern for emotional health or well-being.  As one very wise social worker once said in an interview:

“They are not poor because they have so many children, they have so many children because they are poor.”

“So, is that why teenage girls and children get pregnant?”

“Yes, that and because of the lack of affection. They crave affection and the only way they know how to get any form of attention is through sex. Men only want a girl if she has sex with them, otherwise there is no touching, no attention at all.  From anyone.”

All this is often incomprehensible to the rest of society. The more advantaged sectors of society rightly feel that poor people won´t change, that it´s useless to help them and that, hey, why should they? Lula is giving them money, right?

I now prefer to stay away from certain sectors of society and situations because my innate and uncontrollable urge to help only gets me in trouble. I don´t visit poor “acquaintances” anymore and have kindly asked my husband to stop telling me the horrific stories he hears at work. Of all the people I have tried to help, not one of them has ever taken advantage of the help in a positive way. They have always tried to take more from me or blatantly thrown it away. No hard feelings but I understand the middle class in Brazil. Life is tough enough as it is.

2 responses to “Why average people don´t help the poor in Brazil

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