Maids no more

Brazil is changing rapidly, as old habits and institution disappear or are altered beyond recognition.  One of the mainstays of Brazilian “middle class” life has been cheap domestic help. It was not only the very rich who had maids, gardeners and other sorts of helpers around the house.  People with incomes similar to those of an American family of around or just a little above our median income could afford household help.  The reason for this was abundant cheap labor resulting from a fairly deep chasm between what we would recognize as middle class and what we would see as real poverty.

Most Brazilians have become better off in the last twenty years.  Although the income distribution per se has not changed much (the rich got richer too and Brazil is still an unequal place), the general increase in wealth has disproportionately helped the poorer Brazilians.  Relative wealth matters, but absolute wealth matters more when you are trying to climb out of poverty.   A rich person whose income doubles might be able to buy a nicer car of a bigger refrigerator, but he already owns those things and the additional utility he gets from a better model may be small or even trivial.   The poor person, however, who for the first time gets into the income bracket that he can afford his first car or his first refrigerator feels a quantum leap in his lifestyle.  In the last couple decades, perhaps 50 million Brazilians have climbed past the threshold where they can afford the basic comfort level.

There are also generally better opportunities and people are better able to take advantage of them, as well as few people to do the work.  These three factors interplay.  A big source of domestic help and unskilled labor in general had been the rural areas, especially in the chronically poor regions of the Northeast. Nordestinos , often living on marginally productive small farms, took buses to the cities in the richer South or Southeast whenever life became unbearable or a drought hit the region. Both these things happened with monotonous regularity, but the high birthrates seems to ensure an unbroken supply of very poor people seeking a better return on their hard work. 

People used to talk about the two Brazils. One scholar characterized the country as “Belindia”, i.e. part was rich as Belgium and the other as poor as India, but there was no border between them and the richer cities of other parts of the country. It would be as if the poorer parts of Mexico or India were part of the United States. This was not strictly a geographic phenomenon. The rich and the poor in Brazil often live very close together, but there was a definite geographical aspect too. 

The Northeast is still poor, parts are developing rapidly, actually drawing in labor from other places .  If you bought a Ford Fiesta last year, it was probably made near Salvador, Bahia, part of what used to be an abysmally poor region.   There are lots of people ready, willing and able to work if there is a chance to do it. At the same time, population growth is slowing even among the poorest Brazilians.  Demographic inertia will carry the population higher, but the drivers have stopped.  Among those smaller numbers, illiteracy has dropped, meaning that people can take advantages of more of the available opportunities.   Domestic help doesn’t really need to read.  Most other jobs do. Illiterate or semi-literate people are stuck in the jobs that are going nowhere but the kitchen or the garden.  

It is a healthy sign that it is getting harder to get good domestic help.  Live-in maids are not very productive for the society as a whole.  But their sudden disappearance has created some problems.   A world with full-time maids does not invest much in labor saving devices.  Most American homes, even those of the “poor” have appliances such as dishwashers, microwave ovens and efficient washing machines and driers.  Americans with lawns own power lawnmowers.  People have power tools  and most Americans are accustomed to using them.  There is also something we often overlook.  

Things in the U.S. are simple to use and keep in good repair.   Our shirts don’t require ironing.  Our floors are naturally shinny and don’t need to be waxed much or at all.  Frozen food sections are full of fairly good tasting products that can be zapped in the microwave and ready in minutes. In short, an average American home comes equipped with machines and features that take the place of full-time household help.   Brazilian houses are not like this.  My house in Brasília, which is obviously built for a person richer than I am, did not come equipped with a dishwasher.  I don’t think you can even find a newer house at or above the median price that doesn’t have a dishwasher.

There is a sudden boom in household appliances.  Dishwashers, driers, microwaves etc are selling very well.  I have not actually studied this, but I bet there is also a trend toward simpler construction, more prefab and easier to maintain features.

A recent article re this subject (in Portuguese) is here.

I also noticed more ads about cleaning services.  It looks like the future here will be more like the present in the U.S., with most of the maid’s work done by labor saving devices and people who can afford it hiring cleaning services once a week or for special occasions.   

A related phenomenon is illegal immigration.  As Brazil’s economy grows and Brazilians no longer want to do the dirty jobs, others are being drawn in to take them.  It is funny to see Brazilian attitudes toward illegal immigrants coming to resemble ours in the U.S.  The news has recently featured stories about Haitians.  They come on a roundabout route  through Peru.