Economic inequality in Brazil is archetypal: extremely high, persistent, and caused by a social structure that replicates wealth concentration over time. This unequal system makes Brazil a middle-income country with poverty and educational levels equivalent to that of very low-income countries. This unfair reality is a core obstacle to human and economic development.

The Inequalities hub aims to catalog, study and analyze how legal and institutional change has been affecting the evolution of inequality in the world’s most unequal society. We are developing a historical database on how economic production and income has been distributed in Brazil from the 19th century to today. The wealth of novel data recently discovered (historical censuses, military rosters, tax reports, microdata on labor and household surveys) has no precedents in any research project on Latin America. 

Brazilian militia roster

National Guard roster (1853). Courtesy of Arquivo Histórico do Rio Grande do Sul.

Our goal is to better understand how large-scale transformations, such as the abolition of slavery, political centralization, industrialization, urbanization, globalization, and waves of authoritarianism, have shaped inequality across the lines of class, race and gender in modern Brazil. Drawing from our historical datasets, we will develop a new statistical tool to measure income growth and inequality: the Growth Concentration Framework. This framework will key to indexing the share of income growth different social groups or classes appropriate over time. This longue durée perspective on inequality (based on advanced statistical techniques) will allow us to identify how economic shifts interact with policy, law, demography, culture and education. We want to probe the idea that lower inequality is critical to economic growth and political stability and our studies will seek to inform policymaking and large-scale socio-economic mobility efforts.

Inequalities is coordinated by Thomas Fujiwara and Marcelo Medeiros, with the collaboration of Miqueias Mugge. It involves a group of graduate students in Economics and History as well as notable Brazilian economists, sociologists, and anthropologists from the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA), University of São Paulo (USP), the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), and the Núcleo de Pesquisas em Cultura e Economia (Museu Nacional). The hub is co-sponsored by Princeton’s Data-Driven Social Sciences Initiative. In an effort to include undergraduate students in this research enterprise, the hub offers a yearly course on Inequality across the Americas.

Paraisópolis next to Morumbi, São Paulo. Photo by C. Fernandes.

Paraisópolis next to Morumbi, São Paulo. Photo by C. Fernandes.

The group is currently working on data collection and methodology testing. We started to draft a paper outlining the hub’s research programme and the Growth Concentration Framework and are preparing a conference to discuss initial findings and probe the comparative reach of our tool to other South American economies as well as to BRICS countries. In the coming years, we will create a platform to make our datasets (one of the longest time-series of inequality statistics for any country in the world) available to other scholars around the world.