[OPINION] The persistence of blaming the poor

Jayeel Cornelio

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[OPINION] The persistence of blaming the poor
In a highly stratified society like ours, what we need to argue about is whether the success of the few have been achieved at the expense of the many



The issue is not Secretary Ben Diokno.

You can blame him but he was of course not the first person to say it.

That hard work is the panacea to poverty is a pervasive belief among many Filipinos. The International Social Survey Programme shows that for 92% of Filipinos, hard work is “essential” or “very important” to get ahead in life.

Nevertheless, Secretary Diokno got the flak for believing that you only have to work hard to escape poverty. What could be so wrong with what sounds like a virtuous statement?

The answer lies in its misguided assumptions. For what it’s worth, it took an economist to reveal our society’s ill-considered biases against the poor.

My colleague, JC Punongbayan, has written a comprehensive response based on economic data on wages, chronic underemployment, and educational access. In my piece last year on why poverty is not a choice, I also corrected the misguided attitudes towards the poor.

Now we’re back at it again. Why is blaming the poor persistent?

Cultures of achievement

There are two cultures of achievement in our society: meritocracy and corruption.

Meritocracy rewards diligence. This is the educational system’s most important lesson. Everything we need to accomplish feats in life are, in fact, taught very early on at school. Every requirement has a corresponding mark: homework, quizzes, exams, and recitation. Don’t forget the apron, floor mat, and other handicrafts for TLE.

Reinforcing meritocracy is the school’s social control against deviance. When you come in late you first have to show up to the Prefect of Discipline. When your hair is too long, the Prefect of Discipline is there for you too. The librarian is tasked to keep you quiet.

Corruption, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of meritocracy. People resort to fraudulent acts to bypass the long and arduous road of diligence.

You pay your way through success. That’s called bribery. Doors are opened when you ask your friends or relatives to do it for you. That’s called nepotism.

Whether it’s meritocracy or corruption, people who do not have resources tend to be on the losing end.

Success stories

In a meritocratic environment, people who make it well are those who have access to the best schools. Their parents send them to good private high schools to prepare them for college entrance examinations.

Then they make it to the top universities in the country, which generally attract middle-class students. Studies show that their graduates get paid better in their preferred industries: advertising, sales, finance, IT, medicine, law, and engineering.

But what about their peers? Some of them are professionals, but with opportunities that are not always spectacular. Think of our nurses, teachers, and office staff. The less educated ones end up in service and agriculture. The rest are in the informal sector.

To be sure, there are among us success stories of rags to riches. They are often showcased as examples of what you can achieve when you believe. Manny Pacquiao is one of them.

But how many success stories like this do we really have?

The fact of the matter is that people who are disenfranchised to begin with have bigger hurdles to overcome in life.


The danger with buying into meritocracy is that it can be intoxicating, even mind-numbing. “If I can do it, why can’t others?”

Many of us might even accuse them of not “trying hard enough”.

Here meritocracy becomes a moralistic worldview. It assumes that individuals – and only they – are responsible for their successes or failures in life. To ask people to work hard is to assume that they’re not trying their best.

Along similar lines, the widespread practice of corruption also puts the blame on the losers. “Hindi ka kasi maabilidad.” (You’re not resourceful.)

In a paradoxical sense, both meritocracy and corruption are married to moralism.

They are also both blind to injustices bigger than individuals. The former treats them as losers, the latter takes advantage of their vulnerabilities.

This unholy marriage explains why blaming the poor is persistent.

Social justice

It’s time that we took a step back to reflect on our achievements.

Something must be fundamentally wrong when the wealth of the economy is not shared by many. Underlying it is the individual will to succeed, but one without regard for other people.

In our society, we must work to ensure that other people may also have the same opportunities that the elite have been privileged with. For the geographer David Harvey, to work for social justice is to recognize people’s needs and the common good before merit.

Without this sense of social justice, we will continue to blame the poor for their mishaps, measuring them against the trail of our personal achievements.

Truth be told, we don’t need to argue about hard work. It is a virtue that justifies itself.

In a highly stratified society like ours, what we need to argue about is whether the success of the few have been achieved at the expense of the many. – Rappler.com


Jayeel Cornelio is the Director of the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University and a visiting professor at the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

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