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Christmas Boom for Brazil’s Beggars

Boy cleaning car in Brazil

A few years I wrote an article about a woman selling sweets on the buses in São Paulo who told me that her income rose by about 40% in December.¹ However, there are those who feel that people should be less generous and not even give child beggars anything. They claim these children are exploited by adults and that well-wishers would be better off making donations to charitable organizations.

This is a view I do not share and would like to discuss as it raises a moral question facing anyone who lives in Brazil and sees the problems of poverty every time they walk down a street.

The Estado de S. Paulo newspaper recently claimed in a leader column² that people should “realize that behind every child who begs for coins or sells products in the street there is a criminal exploiter.” It also called for laws to be drawn up to prosecute those who “have no scruples about exploiting child labor”.

This seems far-fetched to me. Brazil is awash with laws, including article 227 of the Constitution which states that the minimum age at which a child can work is 14. There is also a raft of laws covering working conditions, including slave labor, backed up by inspectors who visit workplaces to check on conditions. Labor courts have backlogs of hundreds of thousands of complaints which will take years to settle. So making the statute book even bulkier will make no difference to this situation.

Obviously some of the money does go into the hands of exploiters but in many, if not most cases, it goes to the children’s parents who take them to the places where they beg. The paper says this is the case for 35% of those aged between 8 and 11. If this is true, then many older children must go and return on their own and the money remain within the family.

Begging is often identified with homelessness yet many of these children are part of an extended family which has a home. The Estado itself singled out a family which comes from Minas Gerais state every weekend to beg in an affluent area and spends the night in a hotel in the city center. It also mentioned six boys from the M’Boi Mirim area south of the city who go to the center every day to beg. These can make substantial contributions to household income.

These children are estimated to earn about 40 reais a day (about US$ 18), a figure which can go up to 70 reais at this time of the year. That is a lot of money by Brazilian standards and in monthly terms comes to between 800 to 1,400 reais based on a five-day week per child.

It is well above the minimum wage of 465 reais. In the case of the six boys mentioned above, that amount could rise to between 4,800 to 8,400 reais if each of them gained this amount. Most people could only dream of earning this upper figure which is probably what a senior manager would earn in a bank or industrial plant.

The paper highlighted the fact that while the children are selling items at traffic lights, juggling or just begging they are not at school. However, even then it admitted that 74% of them actually do go to school regularly.

Obviously this is completely unsatisfactory and the children have no chance of gaining a decent education. It quoted an educational specialist as saying that people would not be as tolerant towards the parents if they saw that the children had a hoe in their hands and were working in the field.

I am not so sure of that either. Families of beggars are a familiar sight in the streets of Brazil’s cities. Brazilians are faced with this stark poverty from their earliest days and know it is an innate part of their society.

I believe most people would be more concerned about the children’s safety. Not only are these children exposed to danger in thick traffic but they mix with older beggars and criminals and they are often sexually exploited or enticed into becoming drug addicts.  

Brazilians are used to helping people as individuals rather than as members of society. People are usually kind on an individual basis. Most middle class families with maids not only pay their wages but subsidize them in other ways by buying them essentials or giving them used clothes, furniture and other possessions. They sometimes pay for the maid’s children to have extra lessons or for an English or IT course.

This personal way of helping is one of the reasons why there has been such a backlash among the middle class against the Bolsa Família program which pays families a small monthly grant if they send their children to school and for regular health checks.

The Brazilian taxpayer prefers to give the benefit directly to the person rather than through the bureaucracy which is often inefficient and corrupt. That is why campaigns such as the “Give more than coins. Give a future” which the São Paulo city government launched in 2006 to try and stop child begging by persuading people to make donations to charitable organizations failed.

At the end of the day it is up to people themselves to decide whether to give child beggars money or not. If the Brazilian state cannot rid the streets of children in this position why then should people feel they should give the money to it rather than the children themselves?

¹ “Cida – a Brazilian Entrepreneur” 02.04.2007 http://www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br/content/view/170/28/lang,en/
² “Maléfica generosidade” Estado de S. Paulo 07.12.09

John Fitzpatrick is a Scotsman who first visited Brazil more than 20 years ago and has been based in São Paulo since 1995. He is a journalist by profession and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações, which provides corporate communications and consultancy services. He can be contacted at johnfitz668@gmail.com. This article originally appeared on his site http://www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br/.

© John Fitzpatrick 2009

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