Social protection for the poor

Jake Crisologo
It's our apathy towards poverty that is the worst problem we have in the country

When Bianca Gonzalez tweeted about “prime lots” and “babied informal settlers,” social media went about its usual explosion of differing opinions, hurt feelings and bouts of self-righteousness.

In an article by Katrina Stuart Santiago published in The Manila Times entitled, “The anti-squatter syndrome,” she talked about how social media basically makes us matapobre (looks down on the poor), given our limited perceptions of informal settlements and the conditions of the poor. 

Fine, it’s a tweet; 140 characters; you can’t really give a holistic analysis of the issue. But given that it’s JUST 140 characters, then choosing the proper thing to say should be even more important, shouldn’t it?

However, more than what is being said or being tweeted in reaction to Ms Gonzalez’s statement, the more important issues are bigger than her or her beliefs. Basically, it’s about understanding the realities of poverty and our collective responsibility to address it. 

This underlying state mission is universal social protection. Primarily the government’s responsibility, social protection, as defined by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, is concerned with preventing, managing, and overcoming situations that adversely affect people’s wellbeing.

Conditional cash transfer

Social protection consists of policies and programs designed to reduce poverty and vulnerability by promoting efficient labor markets, diminishing people’s exposure to risks, and enhancing their capacity to manage economic and social risks, such as unemployment, exclusion, sickness, disability, and old age. 

Our country’s biggest project for social protection is the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps). The conditional cash transfer program is funded through loans amounting to more than US$800M from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. It’s working, to a certain extent, but its mechanism for selecting beneficiaries is far from sustainable or universal.

The deadline for the Millennium Development Goals is less than two years from now — 2015 —and the ones “covered” by the CCT program are far from being achieved. After this year and most likely the next, there will still be millions of poor and unemployed people.

The idea of marginalization is an easy enough concept to understand. The middle and upper-class generally know about the existence of poor people. The poor know that they’re poor. But what we feel about it differs greatly considering our backgrounds. 

The poor are the most accountable to their lives, but there’s this popular myth that ANYONE can rise out of poverty if they tried hard enough because there’s always a way. I say it’s a myth because I believe that hard work and determination aren’t enough. These two things are so important and there are some who did conquer poverty having only these.

But more often than not, the success stories show that they had something going for them; a talent, an opportunity, a gift, or the make or break moment where they made a choice or took a chance…and it worked.

For the millions of others living in abject poverty, we can’t say this about them and idealize their lives, or romanticize their existence in the backstories of talent or noontime shows. The possibility of them rising out of poverty on their own shouldn’t be an excuse for the better off to not lend a hand; that it’s justifiable to be apathetic because we can afford to be.

Accountability of the poor

These days, we hear a lot about the poor being lazy; of them having options instead of doing drugs, or gambling in the sabungan (cockpit), prostituting themselves, or drinking their lives away in gin (of which our country is the biggest consumer); of them having too many babies they can’t care for; of the overall immorality of the slums; but most bitterly, our resentment that our taxes have to go into their social services and it just feels unfair, forgetting that the poor pay taxes too through consumption (VAT). Everything everyone buys has consumption tax, which contributes as much as income tax to the government.

Maybe Bianca Gonzalez was right in expressing her feelings that a lot of people share about the issue. To a certain extent, I understand her side of the story — but it’s a flawed perspective in looking at the situation.

We can’t use middle-class ideologies to justify our feelings towards the poor precisely because they’re in an environment and social context that’s so much different from ours.

We work hard; we pay our bills and our taxes. But it’s because we have something going for us in the first place. With unemployment and underemployment so high in the country, a 25% chunk of the population; the highest among which are the youth and women, being a hard worker is useless when there is no work. We’re lucky we got to go to school and got hired.

We got lucky in the birth lottery. We’re lucky we had parents who weren’t necessarily rich to begin with, but paved the path to give us a fighting chance to live relatively comfortable lives. We work hard, inspired by possibilities, deluding ourselves that these possibilities are universal.

Dehumanizing the poor

It’s strange, but living in abject poverty, sometimes being lazy is a logical choice. Prostituting yourself is a logical choice. Begging is a logical choice. These are logical because the opportunity costs are different in their social environment. Why look for work when you’re not qualified anyway because you never got to go to school? Why go to school when you have nothing to eat?

However, these are only logical to the extent where only basic survival is concerned. This has almost nothing to do concerning well-being, or giving back to society; the latter something we criticize so much in the poor.

The moment that we emotionally detach ourselves from the poor and their issues is the moment that we de-humanize them, and to a certain extent, we de-humanize ourselves too. The universality of social protection is not just a principle that we just understand in theory, but a form of responsibility we need to feel as a people because we are people. 

You might not agree with this, but on a greater perspective given the bare minimum of human existence, we’re all informal settlers on this planet anyway. We might not be all privileged “formal” space, but we are privileged to live — happy lives if we can.

Reducing or eliminating poverty, or achieving the goal of universal social protection, is not a just a choice of the poor to help themselves; it should be a choice that goes beyond class boundaries.

The poor are the most accountable and vulnerable to their choices in life as much as the non-poor are accountable to the choices that they don’t make to do anything about poverty.

Poverty is not the worst problem that we have in the country. It’s our apathy towards it. –


Jake Crisologo works as a writer and researcher for Social Watch Philippines and Prof Leonor Magtolis Briones. He is the Secretary of the Philippine Youth Development Initiatives Inc, a civil society organization devoted to youth empowerment. He is currently completing studies in BS Tourism at the Asian Institute of Tourism, University of the Philippines, Diliman. 


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