Are our poor poor because it suits us to keep them that way?


Certainly low labor costs enable non-poor to live well very cheaply
Times Reader Arthur Keefe—reacting to my article on our failure to instill inclusive growth—suggests that one reason we in this country have tolerated so much poverty is that “the middle and upper classes benefit greatly from the very low cost of labor, which enables those with money to have a high standard of living very cheaply. Thus it is not in their interest to remove poverty and low wages—at least not in the short to medium term. The downside is having to live in gated communities and employ armed guards to protect their lifestyle!” (Times, August 9, 2014)

Expats love Manila living
That expatriates love Manila for its living costs we well know. I know of an American couple who’ve fled to Manila from Israel’s living costs. The two have rented out their modest flat in Tel Aviv, and live in Makati as rentiers—lazy and content—entirely on its proceeds.

I too appreciate the difference living in Metro Manila makes: I spent my first decade of being married as a journalist in Hong Kong and Singapore. I washed dishes and swept the floor; heated baby bottles and changed diapers. In a word, I did my husbandly share of chores—customary in developed countries—that the lowliest Metro Manila salariat would deem below his masculinity.

And I must admit I eased back into the comforts Manila offers without a thoughtfor Keefe’s “army of poorly paid laborers” that enables even our modestly moneyed to live high off the hog in a country of epic inequality.

Big people, small people
Income breakdowns of national society reveal a tiny upper class, a small middle class and a large underclass of the ‘non-poor’ and the poor.

The survey group Pulse-Asia distinguishes five income groupings in national society. Classes ABC together equal 7 percent; D 67 percent, and E 25 percent.

Class D breaks down further into two sub-categories. Below a ‘true’ middle class of some 19 percent, there is a sub-category of the precariously ‘non-poor,’ making up 48 percent of national society, that subsists just above the poverty line—hostages to inflation and financial crisis, the loss of jobs, illnesses and deaths, and other life misfortunes.

Despite recent episodes of high growth, roughly half of all Filipinos describe themselves as “poor” in SWS surveys; official statistics place their number at some 25 percent.

In 2009, 13.2 percent of all Filipinos still lived on the equivalent of one US dollar a day—the United Nations’ definition of absolute poverty. This was higher than Indonesia’s 7.7 percent and even Vietnam’s 8.40 percent. By then, Malaysia and Thailand had virtually wiped out absolute poverty from among their peoples.

Missing the bus
Not just once, but at several turning points, we Filipinos missed the bus to modernization.

In the 1950s, we fumbled the chance at agrarian-tenure reform on which our neighbor-economies built their industrial strategies.

Between 1965 and 1990, we missed the economic “miracle” that made East Asia the fastest-growing region.

Now our country is defaulting on its 2015 commitment for poverty reduction under the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

Meanwhile, our income inequality has become East Asia’s worst—because growth is so narrowly based. Metro Manila and its satellite regions—Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog—produce 65-70 percent of domestic output and income.

Our economy’s fastest-growing components—overseas contract work and its domestic counterpart, business-process outsourcing (BPO)—are “enclave economies,” with very few organic linkages to the domestic economy.

Consensus or coercion?
Given our sorry growth record, it does make sense to ask: Are our poor poor because it suits us to keep them that way?

The eminent Jesuit sociologist John J. Carroll suggests that, for Filipinos, national society is less a community united by a common understanding of what the world and society are all about than a stark structure of power.

The possession of economic and political power has much more to do with who gets what than do society’s values or the common good.

And Fr. Carroll fears that special interest groups have shaped policy-making for so long that inequality has become embedded in the whole of national society.

For our neighbor-states beset by multiple threats to their sovereignty, inclusive growth was a survival strategy. We Filipinos—secure in our geographic isolation and sheltered by the American umbrella during East Asia’s most turbulent period—could afford to safely disregard the plight of our powerless.

Even two successive insurgencies between 1950 and 1970 did not disturb our complacency. But how much longer can we really keep things as they are?

What are we to do?
The lessons are all around us; the lessons are plain and simple. Alleviation of durable mass poverty of the kind we have—of poverty passed down from generation to generation—cannot be just a byproduct—merely an incidental benefit—of growth that swells corporate profits first of all.

“Trickle down” does not work well enough and quickly enough. Not only is there a short limit to “spread effect.” Indeed its backwash disadvantages regions farther away: the growth pole sucks away their stores of capital and their most entrepreneurial people.

We must make growth work deliberately for the poor. And in my view leaders, political parties and governments succeed best when in their policies they combine the individual initiative that capitalism stimulates with socialism’s original compassion for those whom development leaves behind.

Finding our way toward this new social contract will be long and difficult. But it is work we cannot forego; it is work we cannot shirk; else we end up like Tolstoy’s hypocritical do-gooder, who was willing to lighten the poor man’s load by all possible means—except by getting off his back.


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  1. Yes Mr. Gatbonton. The poverty issue is not only a governance issue, the distribution of wealth but also by the conscious effort of the rich or those who have the wherewithal to keep people as indentured labour. How often have I heard from the more “fortunate” others that people are lucky to have a “job” when in fact the job is below even the bare minimum wage not enough to put food on the table. The current situation serves those in the “ruling” class and I doubt very much if they’re going give up their position without a fight.

  2. The causes of poverty are complex and in order to improve lives there should be a package of solutions across policy areas. The establishment of a “Living Wage” can be part of the solution.
    A “living wage” is based on the amount an individual needs to earn to cover the basic costs of living. Here in M Manila is a good place to start.

  3. Keeping our people poor buys the election and perpetuates clans running our local govt and oligarchs and trap is running the national govt.our people in govt finance bleeds the middle class while give tax incentives to the wealthy. To add insult to this SME’s are being destroyed by the constant new regulations and requirements of the BIR….. Then these wise guys say jobs need to be created … You have killed the goose now you want the eggs… We have built a facade that is rotten to the core …. It is slowly crumbling down … These guys do not care .. They have golden parachutes while the poor continue in misery generation after generation

  4. On your question “Are the poor poor because it suits us to keep them that way?” My answer is an unequivocal YES. They are poor because their employers keep their pays low, compared to pay rates neighboring Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong. Our poor are poor because the Catholic Church has failed them by encouraging them to have too many children they cannot afford, thus condemning the poor to life of poverty. They are poor because they lack the education to compete for jobs in the market place. They are poor because we have a government who are run by a corrupt elite class and governed by rulers who not know how to be hungry and therefore they are insensitive to the needs of our less fortunate countrymen. They are poor because of the great inequality in the distribution of wealth in our country. They are poor because we have a wealthy class which makes paying the least tax the rule rather than the exception.

    What do we have to do to reduce poverty in our country? We have to reduce inequality in wealth distribution by: 1) Raising the pays of our workers so they can break out from being classified as “working poor”. Pay increases of our workers should be indexed to inflation too. 2) Slowing down our unsustainable high birth rate so families, especially the poor ones, will have less mouths to feed. 3. Stopping rampant corruption in the government. 3) Implementing free universal health care for all Filipinos patterned after the medicare systems of Cuba, Malaysia and Costa Rica. 4) Giving free education to all poor but deserving students in state universities. 5) Making the rich class pay their fair shares of taxes. 6) Exempting the poor from paying VAT. 6) Letting the State care for all street children by putting them in foster homes and paying for their living and educational expenses. 7) Building affordable housing for the poor so we can reduce homelessness in our country.

  5. Of course we need the poor for us the enjoy the good life cheaply. And it gives the satisfaction of eating good food and if some are left we give it to them if it does not appeal to us to reheat. We don’t share the food with them and they always have to eat after we eat. We don’t pay their SSS when we put it into law that we should. They wash and iron clothes that we wear to church. Most everyone does it and our religion tolerates it-why I suspect even our holy priests and bishops do it and they would even feel insulted if you associate them with sacristans. So what about paying our servants their SSS(to provide a modest SSS pension for them in retirement) and share the food that we eat and possibly share the table with them once a month. A modest proposal for us communion taking fellow Catholics.

  6. Income inequality is the result of political inequality, period. Do we have a government of the people, by the people and for the people? The 99% should be running the country, not the 1%.

  7. To the poor poor and poorest of the poor get out of your situation its free no one will stop you. I know that because I was once there.
    Get some education. because being uneducated is much more expensive than be just poor.That is why, as they say my only way of helping the poor is not to be one of them.

  8. If you want to raise salaries make sure the profits are also raised or you’ll kill the business. Not all businesses are making money. Alot are merely surviving by the skin of their teeth.

    Im sure people have heard of the statistic “9 out of 10 businesses fail in the first 5 years”.

  9. The few super rich in this country are the one dictating the policy in this country. Its trickle down to the poor poor and bonanza to them. Make the poor stay poor so they will not attend demo as they are busy scampering for meager income just to survive. In cahoots with corrupt politicians, the poor stay poor and the policy work for them. One good example why the poor stay poor and poorer is the MRT scam.

  10. I am almost certain the rich of this country want to keep the people uneducated & poor so they will just accept things as they are as they always have. But as life progresses & some start getting educated & move abroad & get good money & help their families who are poor so also then do some of them want everyone to benefit, but not all want that. If people earn more money then the middle classes who use maids or get helpers for a day when needed their costs go up & so they also want cheap labour which means they want to keep people poor. They wont think of it in that way as then they will see how unfair they are.

  11. The articles written for the Manila Times by Mr. Gatbonton are clear, lucid and well-presented policy guidelines for our people and government officials. Unfortunately both are more concerned with their own self-interests including the very poor whose welfare Mr. Gatbonton would like to have the government urgently attend to.

  12. Napaka habang kuwento at paliwanag ngunit wala kang maasahang sulusyon!
    Matamis na mga salita,pero wala kang makitang paraan upang ang nagbabasa ay may matututunan!
    Ginigising lang ang iyong kaisipan para mainis ka!

    • Justaskingseriously on

      Ang capitalismo at ang socialismo ay dapat gamitin ng mga policy makers sa Pinas para ang ganancia ng capitalismo ay maaring magamit ng socialismo para sa mga proyectong pangkabuhayan ng mga mahihirap. Yon ang solusyon na sabi ng author na mahirap nga gawin pero dapat gawin.

      Maayos ang capitalsmo dahil nagbibigay ng motbasyon para sa mga may capital para magka ganansya. Ang socialismo ay maayos din dahil mayroon compassion upang matulungan an mga mahihirap magtagumpay din.

      Kung may kakilala ka na nasa poder ng gobyerno o nasa business o corporacion, maari mong sabihin sa kanila ukol sa paghanap ng mga policies na makakatulong sa pag meskla ng capitalismo at socialismo.