Resilient Inequality: The Disabled, the Law, and Street Vending in Sao Paulo

Friday, 3 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
CLM.7.03 (Clement House)
Jacinto Cuvi Escobar, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
This paper seeks to understand why reforms that remove institutional barriers to redistribution often lead to similar patterns of resource allocation that preserve inequality along similar lines. I focus on what, drawing on Max Weber, might be called "opening processes." While Weber theorized situations of social closure, where status groups benefit from legal provisions to protect their monopolies, opening processes are reforms that modify such provisions and thus expand access to market opportunities for other social groups. I argue that opening processes fail to extensively redistribute opportunities and resources because social closure offers intangible payoffs (such as information, legitimacy, and influence) to privileged groups. When reform occurs, these groups mobilize their intangible assets to secure a unequal legacy that preserves their relative advantage. This mechanism complements the institutional literature on critical junctures and path dependence.

The empirical basis for this paper is experience of disabled street vendors in the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil. With an estimated 20 million inhabitants and 150,000 peddlers, Sao Paulo is the commercial capital of Brazil and the largest city in the southern hemisphere. Disabled peddlers are overrepresented among the minority of licensed street vendors and control the best spots within that minority. Their position of privilege dates back to the 1950s, when a municipal ordinance guaranteed the disabled and the elderly priority access to selling spots. Under the military dictatorship (1964-1989), such priority rights evolved into monopoly rights, and disabled street vendors were the only ones eligible for street vending licenses. During the democratization period in the late 1980s, when street vending rights were extended to the able-bodied, the disabled ensured that a system of quotas limit the participation the able-bodied, and that seniority be respected in the allocation of selling spots. This outcome was achieved thanks to the legitimacy and political influence built during the previous era. And a similar outcome obtained at the end of a recent campaign to wipe out street vending citywide.   

The case study draws on 15 months of fieldwork during which I conducted interviews with more than 40 street vendors, city officials, NGO workers, and association leaders. I also carried out archival research on the legislation governing policy towards street vendors over the last six decades. And I conducted ethnographic observation with licensed and unlicensed street vendors.