EARLIER this month, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) announced the results of the latest assessment of the country’s poverty incidence, which is conducted every three years. As of the end of 2018, the poverty rate had fallen to 16.6 percent from 23.3 percent at the end of 2015, the fastest decline in poverty incidence ever recorded here and perhaps anywhere on the planet.
This is very good news, of course. Although poverty incidence is still high, the reduction to below 17 percent means that the Duterte administration is well on its way to meeting one of its major objectives, that of reducing poverty to 14 percent or less by 2022.
The decline in poverty is confirmed by the visible progress of the past couple of years, as well. Both unemployment and underemployment have declined, and average annual incomes have increased. Unemployment in 2019 fell to 5.1 percent from 5.3 percent in 2018, according to the most recent data from the PSA, and underemployment fell from 16.4 percent in 2018 to 14.0 percent in 2019. All this translates to 1.3 million new jobs created, according to the government. Meanwhile, average incomes have risen by nearly 23 percent, to P156,114 per year.
According to the yardstick by which poverty is measured, the poverty rate has significantly declined, and since the method of measurement is one recognized and employed in most other countries as well as by transnational bodies, the latest statistics are a definite boost to the country’s image on the world stage. None of that can be disputed. Likewise, other measures, such as consumer confidence, indicate that a majority of people feel their current circumstances and prospects for the year ahead have substantially improved. According to economy monitor CEIC Data, which draws its information from Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas statistics, the Philippines’ Consumer Confidence Index reached 16.5 in December, compared with an increase of 12.0 in the previous quarter.
Despite all these clear positives, however, there is still a sense that the picture is not quite as rosy as it seems. Yes, according to the statistical yardstick, poverty has decreased, but does that yardstick actually reflect reality?
We question this because as part of the recent data releases, there were two measures that, upon reflection, are a bit troubling. The first is the official poverty threshold established by the government — it is largely determined by NEDA — which is a monthly income of P10,727 for a family of five. The second is the sub-indicator in the unemployment data of “unpaid family workers,” which accounted for 5.8 percent of the workforce in the latest report.
The P10,727 figure was described by NEDA as the minimum required to meet basic needs and works out to just over P357 per day in an average month, with about three-fourths of the amount required for food. This figure contradicts earlier information provided by NEDA, however: In June of last year, after the PSA released a similar P10,000 estimate, NEDA chief Ernesto Pernia clarified that the real figure for a family of five to live “decently” was four times that, or about P42,000 per month.
The P10,000-figure might be enough for bare subsistence, but is bare subsistence adequate? Granted, it does represent real progress that almost 6 million Filipinos have been lifted to the level of subsistence and out of abject poverty in the past three years, but that should not satisfy anyone. There are still far too many people living even below that standard, and that standard does not, for most people, represent a life of dignity and opportunity.
As those of us who are enjoying the fruits of progress this holiday celebrate with our families, let us not be too self-congratulatory; there is still much work to be done. The rising tide of progress has not yet lifted all boats, and until it does, until every Filipino has a fair chance to earn a rewarding livelihood of his or her own choosing, we can only claim progress against poverty, but not victory.