ADB debunks the-poor-are-blessed meme

Marlen V. Ronquillo

Marlen V. Ronquillo

The conventional wisdom is this: the state has been coddling the poor through safety nets and social programs run amuck. Pundits and commentators who take their talking points from Social Darwinists just echo what the Social Darwinists say with passionate intensity: the government has been a “dole-out state” with over-the-top, over generous safety net provisions. They regurgitate this meme ceaselessly—over and over again .

That lie is now regarded in many sectors as gospel truth, ignoring the fact that just one small regulatory give-away to a private sector group easily is worth P40 billion a year.

A report from the Asian Development Bank has shredded this ridiculous conventional wisdom. Essentially, what the ADB report, titled “ The Social Protection Index, Assessing Results for the Asia and the Pacific” says are these:

• The Philippines spends a meager 2.5 percent of its GDP on social protection, which was somewhere between P275 billion to P300 billion in 2012.

• The SPI score of the Philippines , as per the assessment of the ADB based on the social insurance, social assistance and labor market programs for the poor, is a low 0.085 percent—a SPI score that is below the regional average. The ADB, which has categorized the Philippines as a “large middle-income country,” says that the Philippines is way below Singapore ‘s SPI score of 0.169. For the five countries in the original Asean, the average SPI is 0.095 percent .

Good, there is still Indonesia , another “ large middle-income country” with an SPI score lower than us. It if were not for Indonesia, we would be the “ kulelat” among the five original Asean countries on institutionalized support for the poor.

The ADB report and its verifiable metrics shatter the myth of the coddled Philippine poor.

Conventional wisdom has it that the more than P43 billion a year conditional cash transfer (Pantawid Pamilya ) program has been a huge drain on the country’s national budget and has been an overgenerous, over-the-top spending. Before the definitive ADB report, I myself though along the same lines for a while, until real evidence pointed out the niggardly nature of the CCT.

The conventional wisdom that the state has been genuinely and generously spending for the poor has prevented lawmakers from further expanding the scope and reach of safety net legislation . For example, we all have this notion that the provisions of the PhilHealth Law and the Senior Citizens Act , even with the expanded version , have been a drag on businesses because the provisions/benefits are excessive and punitive of private enterprise.

Wrong, as shown in the ADB report. If at all, the Philippine legislature has been too tame or too timid in enacting major and landmark pieces of social safety nets for the sectors on the margin. On the crafting of pro-poor legislation, the Philippine Congress has been acting with restraint not with real recklessness and abandon.

On the issue of labor market programs , there is this general tendency of some of the offices of the executive department , the DSWD and the COA specifically, to adopt the position of “irrational exuberance“ in checking the expenses of Congress-supported foundations that help train people on livelihood opportunities , or those programs generally lumped as “ skills training .

Every skills and livelihood program is suspect , as if it were some front for some odious money-making by some senators and congressman. While the overzealous scrutiny of the training funds of the Congress-supported foundations is within the bounds of law, still a question has been be asked. Why not look at the positive side of the training and livelihood programs ?

The Tesda is still not classified as an economic agency of strategic importance , despite its heroic role in the area of labor market enhancement .

The “ coddled poor” meme blends perfectly well with another conventional wisdom, a favorite media reiteration – the evil of the congressional pork barrel. No part of the national spending program has been as demonized as the pork barrel , obscuring the harsh truth that in many poor communities , the pork barrel is the available state investment .

Roads, bridges, classrooms , irrigation projects , farm-to-market roads and many other infra projects get to be built in the poor communities because of pork barrel funds. The “soft” portions of the pork barrel money goes to scholarship programs and medical assistance rendered in public hospitals .

Sure, there is corruption in the system. But the truth is the good of the pork barrel easily outweighs the negative . The pork barrel has been deemed evil because the media and conventional wisdom have deemed it evil. The truth is an entirely different thing.

The ever-thriving belief in two memes: the state, especially the legislature, has been pampering the poor , and the corruption in the pork barrel system , flourishes because the media have been promoting these narratives . One reason is that it is easy and lazy work.

You just blast a congressman or senator without a fact-based accusation and you can get away with it .

But all the lies and half-truths cannot hide the fact that pork barrel money has been the most generous investor in depressed communities and the scholarship component has been a huge and sustained promoter of meritocracy.

The ADB SPI report has shattered a conventional wisdom . The CW on the “coddled poor” has been exposed as a half-truth . We need more of these reports to counter firmly-held views that dominate—for worse—the national conversation.


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  1. Stephen Bailey on

    Thank you for this analysis, Mr. Ronquillo. There is a battle being waged today, bewteen the very wealthiest among us, such as the Koch’s and Norquist’s in the US, and those who would lift the poor or middle class through spending on education, unemployment insurance, or adequate medical and retirement benefits. In the US, states like Wisconsin have become battle grounds where collective bargaining groups for public servants, have been reduced to inefective and powerless pseudo structures, that have been forced to watch as uber conservative governors, and state legislatures, destablize, and then deconsrtruct, an entire century of workers rights. Rather than compromise, and build more efficient protections into the system, the entire system is being discarded. These same conservative representatives are often elected, ONLY because of gerrymandered districts, that group ethnic, or socio economic groups into ineffective voting blocs, robbing the poor and working class of accurate representation.

    The current Eurocrisis is also an ongoing example as to the efficacy of austerity vs government largesse, which seems to be the language of this current social discussion. As a developing democracy, the Philippines would do well to monitor the current conflicts taking place in Europe and the US state and national legislatures. The battles being waged there are very likely going to be repeated in other representative governments around the world.



  2. Voice from the Wildrness on

    Based on this coddled numbers espoused by this columnist, then it can be said that the recent veto of the present inept president to the Magna Carta Bill for the Poor was done capriciously without thinking by the sleeping occupant of malacanang.