Giving to the Less Fortunate in Brazil

Brazil has often been characterized as the country with the largest income inequality in the world.  According to the World Bank's World Development Index (2002), Brazil is certainly among the top in the world based upon the  following table.  Thus, the bottom 20% could only collect 2.2% of the total income while the top 20% garnered 64.1% of the total income.  Such a level of income inequality would mean that there are many desperately destitute people who are living under subsistence conditinos.

Countries with greatest inequality Lowest 20% Highest 20%
 1. Sierra Leone 1.1% 63.4%
 2. Central African Republic 2.0 65.0
 3. Swaziland 2.7 64.4
 4. Brazil 2.2 64.1
 5. Nicaragua 2.3 63.6
 6. South Africa 2.9 64.8
 7. Paraguay 1.9 60.7
 8. Colombia 3.0 60.9
 9. Chile 3.3 61.0
10. Honduras 2.2 59.4

However, in spite of this high degree of income inequality, there is fortunately no sign of mass starvation.  One reason is that the overall income level of Brazil is still relatively high in the world, so that even the lowest income earners get subsist.  Another reason is that there is a good safety net, whether this is through official channels, or non-government organizations, or just through the kindness of neighbors and strangers.  The subject of this article is about individual charity donations in Brazil.

Here we are going to quote some paragraphs from an article by Georffrey Biddulph on Brazil's Poor:

They surround my car at most traffic lights in Brazil, an army of barely dressed, shoeless indigent, many of them with stumps for arms and legs. They shuffle or walk on crutches or roll in crude wheel chairs from car to car asking for money. If you give them the equivalent of a dime, they will smile and say, “God Bless you.” If you give them the equivalent of a quarter, their faces become radiant.

They are some of Brazil’s most desperate poor. Barefoot, shirtless five-year-olds juggle faded tennis balls. Rail-thin mothers slink from window to window with their newborn babies. Men with barely functioning limbs collect money with skeletal hands. Other men without legs or a means of getting a wheelchair travel dangerously below the traffic on dirty skateboards, stretching filthy arms up to window level in search of a handout.


There are many different strategies for dealing with the constant beggars. Most of the foreigners I know simply do their best to ignore them. Most wealthy Brazilians I know don’t want to risk rolling down their windows to give them money (many a beggar has been known to snatch an earring or watch from a driver through an open window). But I know plenty of people who give all the time. They place spare change in a handy pocket and give it out like candy as they walk the streets.

We will now refer to some survey data from the 2003 TGI Brasil study.  This is a survey of 10,624 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old interviewed during 2003.  The survey respondents were presented with the statement "I almost always give money to the less fortunate on the street" and 33% of them said they either completely agree or somewhat agree with it.

We would not expect the agree rate to be uniform across socio-demographic groups.  However, it is not obvious what we should be expecting.  On one hand, this is about giving away one's own resources.  So perhaps we would expect that only people who have the means of giving can give.  In other words, we would expect charity donations to increase with the ability to give (i.e. affluence).  On the other hand, this is about class solidarity.  Unless one has experienced the hardship and pain of poverty, one is less compelled to give.  

In the following chart, we show the agree rates by socio-economic level and monthly household income.  Thus, it is the poor who is more likely to give to other poor people.  How about that for solidarity?

(Source:  2003 TGI Brasil)

Unfortunately, the TGI Brazil study does not have a question about who is a bleeding heart liberal.  However, if we believe that "men are from Mars and women are from Venus", we may expect to see different attitudes towards charitable donations.  The following chart shows the agree rates by age/sex group.  Among men, there is an inverted U-shaped relationship, whereas the women has a J-shaped relationship.  It is interesting that among the oldest people (54-64), women suddenly become much more charitable than the men.

(Source:  2003 TGI Brasil)

(posted by Roland Soong, 6/1/2004)

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