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Income inequality is surging, and there are few countries where it is rising faster than the United States. The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences. GlobalPost sets out on a reporting journey to get at the ‘ground truth’ of inequality through the lenses of education, race, immigration, health care, government, labor and natural resources. The hope is to hold a mirror up to the US to see how it compares to countries around the world.

Brazil's 'educational apartheid' cements inequality early in life

Brazilian government initiatives now bring schooling to the masses, but the country's deep racial divide has only been reinforced.

parental guidance combine to produce legions of dropouts and ill-prepared graduates. 

That’s especially worrisome because Brazil is now the world’s sixth largest economy. Yet largely due to its education woes the country lacks qualified applicants for many high-tech jobs. In some cases, Costin says, headhunters have had to look outside the country for qualified personnel which means fewer Brazilians can move up the economic ladder.

It’s not just a Brazilian storyline. Parallel rich/poor school systems that help maintain a lopsided status quo  are the norm throughout Latin America, the region of the world where according to the Gini Index inequality is highest.

“When a society becomes more and more divided, it becomes increasingly class-driven,” Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Siglitz told GlobalPost. “And it’s very hard for democratic processes to work well in that kind of society.” 

Thanks in part to deteriorating public schools, the United States is increasingly turning into “that kind of society.” 

For the past generation, many parents who could afford it have been removing their kids from public institutions and placing them in private academies. Education isn’t the only factor, but this shift coincides with an alarming jump in income inequality. Between 1980 and 2007, the portion of national income held by the top 1 percent of Americans went from 10 percent to 24 percent.

“Which leads to a question for the United States: why would you allow that to happen, when we in Latin America can show you how difficult it is to achieve the kind of exemplary middle class that you invented in the first place?” wrote Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister who now teaches at New York University.  

“So before the United States continues on its current road of dismantling its version of the welfare state, of shredding its social safety net, of expanding the gap between rich and poor,” Castañeda writes, “Americans might do well to glance south.”

Yes We Can?                        

Lucas Cherpe de Abreu, 11, walks around his school, Colegio Teresiano, an upper class private school. Lucas is able to study at Teresiano thanks to his father, Adilson Mendes Junior, 34 (left), a school employee.
(Marizilda Cruppe/GlobalPost)

If Americans fixed their eyes on Brazil, and in particular the northern fringes of Rio de Janeiro, they might spot the Monteiro Lobato K-12 public school. And unlike the palm-fringed courtyards of the Colegio Teresiano, it’s a barren landscape for learning.

The school is framed by dusty streets where drug dealers sell crack. During a recent visit, the toilets didn’t flush due to a lack of water and lunch service had been cancelled. In the 90 degree heat, electric fans struggled to cool the classrooms. 

“If I had kids, I would not send them here,” said an exasperated Vivian Fadel, the school principal.

But for many poor children, Monteiro Lobato is the only option. Some of the students were gathered in a cramped outdoor courtyard that doubles as the school gymnasium. When asked about their aspirations, one of them, a curly-haired 13-year-old named Ingrid, said she wanted to be a fashion designer or an architect. But it seems like a stretch.

Ingrid, who comes from a broken family, has never met her father. In fact, 400 of the 1,300 students at the school do not have a father registered on their birth certificates.

Ingrid’s mother works as a maid and is gone all day so when she gets home from school there’s no one to help or encourage her to study. And Ingrid spends a lot of time at home because the school day in Brazil lasts just four hours.

During that time Ingrid doesn’t absorb much because her teachers, many of whom work at two or three schools to augment their salaries, sometimes fail to show up. Fadel would like to fire half of her teachers but can’t because of union contracts that protect civil servants.

Despite her interest in architecture, Ingrid has never heard of the late Oscar Niemeyer, a Rio native and a giant of modern architecture who designed the hyperboloid and flying saucer-like structures of Brasilia. In fact, Ingrid