'Everything is a priority'

How a family living in an informal occupation in Brazil manages their expenses.

An illustration of a person walking towards a house that looks like a shack with a long receipt going over the house.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? A series from the front line of the cost-of-living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Mariele da Silva*

Age: 42

Occupation: Part-time domestic worker

Lives with: Husband Luís (44), twin sons Cosme and Damião (16) – both of whom have special needs – and daughters Manuela (14) and Letícia (13)*

Lives in: Ocupação Vitória, a spontaneous informal settlement of families on the outskirts of Diamantina, a town of around 45,000 inhabitants in the countryside of Brazil. Apart from the bathroom, made of brickwork and topped with two water tanks, the family’s three-bedroom shack with a small living room and a kitchen is made entirely of wooden planks.

Monthly household income: Because of his physical disabilities, Cosme receives a monthly benefit from the government, equal to the minimum wage of 1,302 Brazilian reais ($258) per month  – the only regular income in the household. While the family fights for Damião’s right to the same benefit on account of his cognitive impairment, Mariele works four days a week as a part-time domestic worker, making 500 reais ($99) per month, less than half the legal minimum wage. Luís is a mason helper, whenever he can find work. The family’s average monthly income is 2,000 reais ($397), putting them in the very low-income bracket, according to the Institute of Applied Economic Research.

Total expenses for the month: Around 2,200 reais ($437)

*All family members' names are pseudonyms, to maintain their privacy.

A photo of Mariele revealing the cupboard that she uses to keep food.
Mariele shows where she stores the family's food [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]
A cupboard where Mariele stores the family's food [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]

Erecting the wooden shack in Ocupação Vitória in early 2021 meant that Mariele and her family were now official inhabitants of one of the dozens of informal occupations that Brazil's Homeless Workers Movement (MTST) has established across the country.

When families can no longer afford rent, communities like Ocupação Vitória become an alternative to homelessness. These spontaneous settlements have been growing since the foundation of MTST in 1997 - when, faced with the lack of adequate housing in the peripheries of increasingly populated urban centres, thousands of workers started to fight for the constitutional right to decent housing.

Mariele’s decision to move came after months of going back and forth between a rented apartment in Diamantina - where she lived with the four children - and the one-bed-sized canvas shack on the outskirts of town where her husband, Luís, spent days and nights alongside 150 other families, holding their ground as the municipal guard destroyed vegetable gardens, fences and even shacks in an attempt to evict the entire community.

A photo of Cosme sitting on a sofa.
Cosme sits in the sofa, while Damião plays with a toy next to him [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]

Social workers advised Mariele against the move. Both her twin sons Cosme and Damião, now 16, experienced oxygen deprivation at birth, resulting in cerebral palsy. Damião’s special needs are mostly cognitive; Cosme’s, physical. Only the latter was granted the Continued Provision Benefit, which entitles seniors over 65 and people with disabilities of any age to a monthly minimum wage of 1,302 reais ($258). Social workers warned that if child protection officials found Cosme living in less than ideal conditions, as would have been the case had they moved into Luis's shack, it could result in the loss of the benefit and, possibly, other legal consequences for the family.

“I knew the risks of moving here,” Mariele says.

“We built a shack from wood planks and made a bathroom of brickwork, with a wood-burning stove to heat the water, so that I could have an adequate place to shower the boys. I didn’t want to rely on the communal bathrooms [in the settlement], especially with Cosme’s limited mobility.”

A photo of Ocupação Vitória with houses and greenery.
Many houses in Ocupação Vitória are made of wooden planks [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]

The right to decent housing is granted by the Brazilian Constitution. Yet, housing deficit afflicts millions of low and extremely low-income families. The latest national housing census, from 2019, found that the housing deficit throughout the country was 5.8 million homes. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a 38 percent growth in homelessness.

Today, Ocupação Vitória is home to roughly 400 people living in around 160 shacks, built from a variety of materials, and organised in unpaved named streets. While some shacks are still made of canvas, most are more stable, using materials such as timber, concrete slabs or even brickwork.

Following MTST rules – which include the prohibition of drug use, domestic violence and robbery inside the communities – shacks are registered and numbered, allowing for a better understanding of the population, and a more efficient fight for their rights.

Around the settlement, laundry drying on wire fences brings a dash of colour to the scenery. Vegetable, herb and flower gardens inhabited by dogs, chickens and ducks give Ocupação Vitória the peaceful atmosphere of a small semi-rural community. Yet there is no utopia to be found. Lack of access to city services, from garbage collection to sewage, mean rubbish in the streets and a heavily polluted water stream litters the surroundings.

Laundry hangs in an informal occupation in Brazil
Laundry hangs to dry in the occupation, bringing colour to the surroundings [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]

In July 2022, with the pandemic still ongoing, a public-private owned water company cut the occupation’s water supply. Until then, treated water had reached Ocupação Vitória through unlicenced pipes – meaning residents did not pay for it. For 30 days following the cuts, until the company complied with a court order demanding a solution, everyone was left without water.

“We must have spent some 600 reais ($119) on petrol during that time, driving back and forth, from early morning until around 9pm, carrying water from a stream by Luis’s workplace to our shack. We had a 200-litre water drum and another three 50-litre ones. All that just so we could have enough to drink and shower,” Mariele recalls.

The solution given by the water company was far from ideal. The flow of treated water was re-established, but is now controlled by a communal hydrometer. Every month, a water bill of approximately 6,000 reais ($1,190) arrives at the settlement; the payment is shared between the families, split based on the number of people living there, but it does not account for each individual shack’s water usage. For Mariele’s family, that has meant an extra 100 reais ($20) in expenses every month.

Tracking Mariele’s monthly costs is no easy task. Because she resorts to deferred payments for many of the family’s needs - from food and cooking gas to medicine and school supplies - one month’s expenses end up spilling over to the next.

A study published by the Plano CDE research institute in November 2022 found that roughly 50 percent of low-income families in Brazil took out loans and borrowed money over the past year in order to be able to afford to pay for food and bills.

An illustration of a graph indicating inflation with the left bar almost twice as long as the right bar.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Before the cost of living skyrocketed – one of the many effects of the pandemic – Mariele managed to save up to 200 reais ($40) a month, even as the family lived in a rented apartment. Now, exceeding the monthly income has become the rule. And it is up to her to be on top of all the expenses and debts.

“It is all me, there is no one else. My husband is great at his work, but he is a country man, he doesn’t know how to handle these things. If he goes to the supermarket or the butcher’s, he doesn’t know to look for items on sale or to bargain.”

Last month, Mariele started a job as a domestic worker four times a week, during the hours that the children are at school. But it will take the family a while to pay off their many deferred debts.

For her, saving is almost inconceivable. “Everything is a priority,” she says.

Over the course of a month, from February 20, 2023, to March 20, 2023, as part of a collaborative project, Mariele tracked her expenses with reporter Amanda Magnani.

Here are the expenses that tested her finances the most.

Expenses over one month

A photo of a car outside of a house, under a metal roof shade.
The family car outside their house in the occupation [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]
The family car outside their house in the occupation [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]

Food and cooking gas

Now that all Mariele’s children are “practically adults”, food consumption at home has grown. Nearly all of Cosme’s monthly benefit, which represents up to 65 percent of the household income, goes towards paying for the portion of groceries bought from the supermarket, which this month rounded up to 1,300 reais ($258). That was just for what Mariele calls “the basics”: rice, beans, oil, sugar, coffee, pasta, chicken, plus hygiene and cleaning products.

To cut down on costs, Mariele goes to the supermarket on Thursdays, when she knows there will be products on sale.

She doesn’t buy meat and vegetables at the supermarket, though. These come from butchers and smaller grocery stores, where she can negotiate and pay at later dates. On average, that adds up to a monthly 100 reais ($20) in meat and 70 reais ($14) in vegetables.

The same goes for cooking gas. While the best gas company would charge her 110 reais ($22) in a cash-down payment for a cylinder that would last over a month, Mariele has to pay 125 reais ($25) for one of poorer quality because it gives her the option of a deferred payment.

According to the National Consumer Price Index, published in January, the accumulated cost of inflation for food in 2022 was 11.64 percent – almost twice as high as the average inflation for that year, 5.79 percent. For food cooked at home, the index reached 13.23 percent.

2022: 1,276 reais ($253)** 
2023: 1,470 reais ($292)

A photo of Mariele’s kitchen.
Mariele’s small kitchen is next to the bathroom, which has two water tanks above it [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]

Utilities

Because Mariele lives in an occupation, rent is no longer one of her expenses. But while access to treated water has been granted at 100 reais ($20) a month, the same isn’t true for electricity.

Dozens of the 150 families at Ocupação Vitória are currently in a legal fight for the right to access the city’s power grid, which, in Mariele’s understanding, has not been granted because the materials some of the homes are built of are considered unsafe.

The solution, then, came in the form of hot-wiring. A neighbouring house with access to the city’s power grid shares the electricity with Mariele’s family through electric cables that run above ground. Exposed to the heavy summer rains, the cables will often tear and have to be repaired or replaced. In an even graver danger, they occasionally start small fires, and the family has to hastily turn off the electric switch.

The neighbours then ask Mariele for her share of the bill, which is never less than 100 reais ($20). This month, it came at 116 reais ($23). Mariele, who has never laid eyes on one of these bills, has to trust their word and pay the amount requested.

2022: Mariele paid nothing for water as the supply was unlicensed; the price of electricity varied widely last year and Mariele cannot recall an average cost
2023: 216 reais ($43) for water and electricity

An illustration of prices rising in the past year.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Medicine

One of the consequences of Cosme’s cerebral palsy is urinary incontinence, resulting from bladder problems that led to many surgeries over the years. The medicine he has to take daily costs Mariele over 100 reais ($20) a month.

Brazil has a universal healthcare system, which should grant her son free access to his medicine. But Mariele would have to go through a legal process to prove that he qualifies. Although doctors have advised her to take this route, doing so would demand the one resource Mariele cannot expend: time. The bureaucracy would take too long and require that she go too many times to the city centre, a 50-minute walk from the settlement. So she ends up paying for Cosme’s medicine.

Added to that is her own stomach medication for chronic gastritis, and Damião’s epilepsy prescription. “It always adds up to at least 280 reais ($56),” says Mariele, who has been buying the medicines in the same drugstore for years, choosing that specific location because of the option to defer payment.

Pharmaceutical products were among those with the highest inflation over the past year, reaching an increase of 13.52 percent.

2022: 242 reais ($48)** 
2023: 280 reais ($56)

A photo of three backpacks with notebooks in front of them.
The school supplies Mariele bought for the four children [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]

School supplies

Public schools are free in Brazil. School supplies are not. In fact, the cost of school supplies has skyrocketed. For middle school children, supplies became 24.3 percent more expensive this year.

For Mariele, this year was particularly hard, as she had to get new backpacks for all four of her children, in addition to books, notebooks and stationery. The supplies she bought in February cost her 700 reais ($139), which she will pay in seven instalments of 100 reais ($20) each, starting this month.

Today, all four children go to the same school – something Mariele can take credit for, as she fought against the city’s system which, at first, allocated the girls and the boys to two different institutions.

Although there is a middle school in the surroundings of Ocupação Vitória, the siblings were sent further away. Cosme’s physical disabilities grant him the right to a municipality car that picks him up from home and drives him to school. Damião gets to ride with him every day.

That is not the case for the girls. Because school starts as early as 7am, Luís drives them every morning. Once classes are done for the day, they walk all the way back. While petrol or gas for the car definitely tests the family’s finances, Mariele still has not been able to track how much it costs or how much strain it puts on their budget.

2022: 563 reais ($112)**
2023: 700 reais ($139)

A photo of Manuela with braces on her teeth.
Manuela’s braces [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]

Dentist and orthodontist

All four of Mariele’s children need braces, but she can’t afford to pay for all of them at once.

Given that Manuela and Cosme’s situation was more urgent, they got priority. For a whole year, the siblings’ braces will undergo monthly upkeep and, for each child, Mariele must pay 80 reais ($16) after every dentist appointment.

Damião and Letícia will get their turn once Mariele pays off the treatment of the other two. That will mean two whole years of paying 160 reais ($32) every single month.

Meanwhile, Mariele lost a tooth a few months back, after an incident where she stumbled and fell on the cobbled streets of the town. The tooth was temporarily replaced, but the permanent replacement will cost her 3,000 reais ($595), which she still doesn’t know when she will be able to afford.

2022: 142 reais ($28)**
2023: 160 reais ($32)

** Last year’s costs were sourced from Brazil’s Consumer Price Index, the Brazilian Institute of Retail Executives, the V+ platform, and Mariele.

A photo of fruits and vegetables on a table with a long receipt folded on top of them.
Fruit and vegetables on the kitchen table, next to a supermarket receipt [Amanda Magnani/Al Jazeera]

Six quick questions for Mariele:

1. What's one thing you had to forgo this month? Last year, my younger daughter, Letícia, started having episodes where her heart would race, her hands would sweat and she would cry uncontrollably. So she started going to therapy, at 60 reais ($12) per session. The therapist wanted to see her weekly, but I could only afford it every 15 or 20 days. This year, we agreed she would go back after Carnaval in February, but I still haven’t been able to afford it.

2. What’s the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? I am late with paying the water and electricity bills because I had to pay for two months of my cooking gas debt.

3. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? Now that we joined other families in the legal action for electricity, we made a huge investment in an electrical box, so we can get access to the city’s power grid without depending on my neighbour. We borrowed 1,700 reais ($337) from Luis’s boss, which will be cut from his payment over the next months.

4. When finances get tough, what gets you through the difficult times? It is really hard to save on anything, because everything is a priority. Whenever possible, both Luís and I work odd jobs to get some extra money, but sometimes, I have to resort to bank loans. I will go and ask for some 500 reais ($99).

5. What’s your biggest money worry? My husband and I grew up in the countryside, so we have seen our share of suffering. We have seen too many people getting sick and not being able to afford treatment on time. The idea of not having money if that happens really scares me.

6. What’s the saving hack you are proudest of? We can’t really save much, but in my home, we don’t waste. I am really proud when there is no food left after a meal. We wouldn’t throw it away, because there are always animals around to feed. We work hard to put food on the table, so I am proud to say we don’t waste.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera