Educational inequality and income inequality



Our educational system is building, today, the inequality of the future

Around 1990, Brazil came to occupy the worst position with regard to income concentration. Despite the changes that have occurred since then, we are still among the most unequal countries, ranging from the 4th worst situation when the indicator is the ratio between the incomes of the richest 20% and the poorest 20%, and close to the 15th worst, if the indicator is the Gini index.

This reality described above has not yet incorporated what has happened since the Temer government took office, such as the dismantling of the state, extreme neoliberalism, the unbridled rise in unemployment or the intensification of precarious work, among other problems. Even if there wasn't an epidemic badly faced, our inequality would be returning to being the worst in the world.

The combination of many factors explains this situation, such as, among others, urban/rural differences, the policy of land ownership concentration, low educational levels, tax policy and social contributions, colonial heritage and regional differences, ethnic and gender. The purpose of this article is to examine how intensely income inequality creates an unequal educational system and how intensely an unequal educational system contributes to perpetuating inequality in income distribution.

An adult's income depends on education

A person's income depends on many factors, including their education. Figure 1 illustrates this dependency: people with 4 years or less of schooling receive, on average, one minimum wage or less. An individual income typically higher than one minimum wage per month is a characteristic of people with at least completed elementary school.

A person's income grows as the level of schooling increases, reaching an average of five times the minimum wage in the group formed by those with 16 years or more of schooling, that is, with complete higher education.

Figure 1 – Average monthly income of people between 30 and 65 years of age according to the number of completed years of schooling. (All graphs in this work were prepared based on microdata from the 2019 PNAD.)

There are several other ways of examining the dependence of income on schooling. For example, more than half of the people among the 10% with the highest incomes (more than 4 minimum wages or more per month) have at least completed higher education. When we consider the group formed by the richest 1%, that is, those who earn fifteen minimum wages or more per month, virtually no one has completed less than 16 years of schooling.

This dependence of income on schooling is one of the components of the vicious circle that links inequality in education with inequality in income distribution.

A child's or young person's schooling depends on income

The perverse vicious circle closes as the schooling of a child or young person depends on household income. Let's see this by school exclusion, shown in figure 2.

Dropping out of school before completing elementary school, despite its obligation, is very high, affecting around one in every seven or eight children. In addition to being high, this abandonment, as expected, is not uniform across the population, being very concentrated in the most economically disadvantaged groups. While in the group of households with 21-year-olds who are among the richest 10% (per capita income greater than about two minimum wages, or R$ 2005, according to data from the analyzed PNAD), less than 1% of people at that age did not complete 9 years of elementary school (see figure 2). At the other extreme, the group formed by the poorest 10%, whose household income per person is less than R$ 160 per month, almost 30% of children or young people do not complete elementary school.

Figure 2 – Percentage of 21-year-olds who did not complete primary education according to per capita household income range. Each group has 10% of the population at that age. The values ​​indicated on the abscissa correspond to the income limits of each group.

When we examine school dropout before the end of high school, which appears in figure 3, the situation repeats itself. On average, one-third of the 25-year-old population had not completed high school in 2019. Among people in this age group belonging to the group formed by the 10% with the highest per capita household income (more than two minimum wages per month), only 3,5% did not complete high school. As we analyze groups with lower incomes, abandonment grows. Among the poorest 30%, those whose per capita household income was below R$450 in 2019 (about half a minimum wage), not finishing high school is the rule; exception is completing this school level.

Figure 3 – Percentage of people with less than 12 years of schooling at age 25 according to per capita household income range. Each group corresponds to 10% of households.

The numbers tell only part of the story: reality is worse

The analyzed indicators refer only to school education measured in years spent in school. But in addition to this measure, one must consider the length of the school day, the quality of care offered by the schools, the course attended in cases of secondary and higher education, access to other educational resources, such as private lessons, monitoring by those responsible for development school, language courses, sports activities, cultural activities and trips, psychological counseling, use of school knowledge in everyday life, etc. These extracurricular factors, even more dependent on income than school attendance, greatly intensify the educational differences of children and young people.

These extracurricular resources exist only in the most economically favored segments. In the poorest segments, the only educational resources a child has access to are those found in schools and total investments in education can be below 20 reais over a lifetime. In the richest segments, including out-of-school educational expenses, lifetime investments can go beyond or well beyond half a million reais.


A person's income, after leaving the educational system and being included in a country's workforce, does not depend only on their education, even if that income is only from work. She depends on her social relationships, friends, acquaintances and family. But the perverse Brazilian economic and educational systems have not neglected this aspect and our schools also segregate economically, causing poor children to study in the same schools as the richest children.

If today we have one of the worst income distributions in the world, it is because our educational system, in the past, contributed to this, training the population that is now part of the country's workforce in a very uneven way. As the country continues to repeat this recipe, the future will also be one of great inequality: our educational system is building, today, the inequality of the future.

*Otaviano Helene is a senior professor at the Institute of Physics at USP, former president of Adusp and INEP. Author, among other books, of A Diagnosis of Brazilian Education and its Financing (Associated Authors).


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