Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro; Ordinary Families, Extraordinary Lives: Assets and Poverty Reduction in Guayaquil, 1978-2004

In This Review

Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro
By Janice Perlman
Oxford University Press, 2010
448 pp. $29.95
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Ordinary Families, Extraordinary Lives: Assets and Poverty Reduction in Guayaquil, 1978-2004
By Caroline O. N. Moser
Brookings Institution Press, 2009
360 pp. $32.95
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Viewed from afar, the urban slums of developing countries often spark moral disdain for a "culture of poverty" and fears of impending social explosions. In these complimentary volumes, two mature social scientists provide compelling counterperspectives that add sophistication, humanity, and hope to what is understood about urban poverty in Latin America. Perlman returned repeatedly to the famed slums of Rio de Janeiro to follow four generations of residents over 40 years. She writes with compassion, artistry, and intelligence, using stirring personal stories to illustrate larger points substantiated with statistical analysis. Not all of her subjects find paths out of poverty, but Perlman chronicles an overall improvement in living standards and a surprising degree of upward social mobility, especially among families with fewer children. She discovers many innovative social interventions (by community organizers, nongovernmental organizations, and international agencies) that, if replicated, could have widespread benefits.

Moser follows the 30-year transformation of a community of squatters on the periphery of Guayaquil, Ecuador, from a shantytown of bamboo-walled houses in a mangrove swamp into a consolidated settlement with cement block houses. Her focus is on those assets -- homes, appliances, education, capital, social networks -- which energetic citizens can accumulate to overcome poverty. Like Perlman, Moser seeks broad societal explanations, but she also recognizes that personal traits and luck explain individual outcomes. Both scholars worry that the emerging democracies of Latin America have so far failed to fully incorporate their expanding urban populations and produce enough good jobs. But their uplifting reportage from the edge provides solid ground for reasoned optimism.