BRASILIA - HOUSEKEEPER Leonides de Moraes is part of the emerging middle class fuelling Brazil's economic revival - but try telling her that.
Like others in her income range, she scrapes together a precarious living that highlights the risks of a growing boom in personal credit in a country still suffering some of the world's greatest inequalities.
Aged 66, she takes two buses and a train on a daily two-hour commute from the poor outskirts of Rio de Janeiro to the city centre. She chuckles at the notion that she is part of any middle class.
'You mean the poor class,' she jokes. 'Things are difficult. Without side-jobs, wage-earners would go hungry.'
Like many in Brazil's 'class C' - defined as households with salaries ranging from 726 to 1,195 reais (S$614 to S$1,010) a month - Ms de Moraes has used instalment payments to buy durable goods, such as her first washing machine.
While she draws the line at credit cards, many others do not, and concerns are growing that the new middle class may be overextended.
'The degree of instability, of vulnerability is tremendous,' said Mr Nilson de Oliveira, a researcher at Sao Paulo's Fernand Braudel Institute of World Economics.
At a time when the United States, the world's largest economy, is suffering from excess borrowing gone awry, analysts fear the consequences could be worse in a country still marked by widespread poverty and inequality of income.
In the past two years, more than 23 million people have risen into Brazil's class C from classes D and E, according to consumer research firm Cetelem, helped by a rise in the minimum wage and government programmes as Brazil enjoys high commodity prices, a stable currency, and tamer inflation.
Many of them have also gained access to mortgages, consumer loans and credit cards, privileges enjoyed until recently only by the wealthy.
'Today we basically have the opportunities that our bosses have, thanks to the credit card and to how easy it is to buy in the market,' said Ms Nilza Rodrigues, 45, who works as a caregiver in the south-eastern city of Belo Horizonte. Ms Rodrigues said she now has a television, DVD player, and microwave and noted with pride that her fridge is the same brand as her boss's.
The number of credit cards in Brazil rose 91 per cent between 2002 and 2006, Cetelem says, while personal credit has risen to 12.3 per cent of GDP, approaching US levels of 18 per cent.
Some analysts worry that the interest rate burden from multiple instalment payments could make for a dangerous cocktail in a country where many are still financially illiterate.
'We have to be very careful with credit. Consumers have to think twice before taking on a commitment,' said Mr Charles Lotfi, head of the business chamber in Belo Horizonte.
'For businessmen it is important that people consume but it has to be a sustainable consumption because ... inflation is already here with its claws ready.'-- REUTERS