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Upwardly mobile in Brazil: Pedicures as a path from Rio slum to a mortgage

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Thanks to a constitutional provision for universal education enacted in 1987, Meire got a high school diploma. She worked at a General Electric light bulb factory for six years after high school. But when incandescent bulbs lost market share, the factory closed. Meire's diploma saved her: It qualified her to take an 18-month specialized salon course.

"Brazilians are consuming more because they're working more, and they're working more because they went to school," says economist Marcelo Neri, who last year produced the Getúlio Vargas Foundation study "The New Middle Class in Brazil: The Bright Side of the Poor." Mr. Neri adds that enrollment in technical schools such as the one where Meire got her training grew 75 percent from 2004 to 2010.

The favela where Meire grew up is famous for a section where drug addicts openly use crack, undisturbed. And security is hardly provided by police: She recalls how she and a companion awoke in a favela apartment four years ago surrounded by police who threw a packet of cocaine on their bed in a mistaken-identity extortion bid.

Her parents still live there, in a house of concrete rooms stacked atop each other in three stories, so close to a house across the alley that a neighbor can lean over and serve lemonade to visitors.

Even for those most determined to get ahead in life, favelas are full of pitfalls. Meire's first boyfriend, a cocaine addict, promised he'd stop using drugs if she had sex with him. She became pregnant at 16 – in 1994 – with her first daughter. But the boyfriend was killed in 2001 by a drug lord because his habit was leading to crimes that stirred up trouble for the community.

Despite being left alone in difficult circumstances, in November 2008 Meire performed some financial acrobatics and took out one of the Brazilian government's increasingly available low-cost 20-year loans to buy a 1930s-era yellow two-bedroom house with a front porch.

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