The Long View: Permanently poor

The Long View
Permanently poor

By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:48:00 02/22/2009

IN December 1971, some of the country’s leading analysts met in Singapore and discussed the Philippine situation. Sixto K. Roxas, who had played a prominent role in the Macapagal administration, said that the average Filipino was 40 percent better off in 1960 than in 1950 and furthermore 75 percent better off in 1970 than in 1960. This accounts for the nostalgia many people who can remember the ’50s to the ’70s feel for that era in our national life.

What’s happened since then?

For one thing, we’re far more plentiful. We went from 37.9 million in 1971 to 55.8 million in 1986; and from there, climbed to 71.8 million in 1996 and then 85.5 million by 2005, with a population expected to reach 93.7 million by 2010.

With that comes all sorts of problems of adjustment, where the majority are fully used to conditions that make for little privacy while the minority used to keeping the majority at arms’ length find it increasingly difficult to do so, and who themselves, as the managerial and political class of this country, still operate from the assumption everyone knows each other when this cannot and should not be the case any longer.

If we try to answer the same question Roxas addressed, we can refer to the Human Development Index (HDI) which was devised, according to the online reports of the 1st Asia Economic Forum of the University of Cambodia, “as one means to facilitate making comparisons between nations on their relative states of development.”

The result is what it calls a” “three-dimensional” indicator of a country’s overall achievement in helping its citizenry have: a long and healthy life; a depth of knowledge and understanding about the world around them; and a decent standard of living.”

The Asia Economic Forum broke down our region into four clusters. Cluster 1: Australia (HDI Rank 3), Japan (11), New Zealand (19), Hong Kong (22), Singapore (25), South Korea (28) and Brunei (33). Cluster 2: Malaysia (61), Thailand (73), Philippines (84) China (85). Cluster 3: Vietnam (108), Indonesia (110) and Mongolia (114). Cluster 4: India (127), Burma (129), Cambodia (130) and Laos (133).

The AEF observed a “general upward trend in HDI values over the past almost 30 years.” And pointed out that there were the following major points of interest: “the “Asian tigers” (Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea) clearly became part of Cluster 1 over the period prior to 1995; the Philippines has progressively dropped since 1975 to a relatively low position in Cluster 2; and Mongolia has transited from Cluster 2 to Cluster 3 over the period 1985-1995; whilst China has done the opposite since 1995.”

In other words the average Filipino, if you adopt the HDI, has been experiencing a progressive deterioration from 1975, four years after Sixto Roxas made his observations, until the present.

Since the AEF situated the Philippines in terms of our neighbors, our rankings have been dropping even further, from 84th when the AEF looked at figures, to 90th out of 177 countries with data as of 2005, the last reported findings of the UN.

In terms of HDI value, we’re 90th, between Ecuador and Tunisia. If you look at the measurements that comprise the HDI, we’re also 90th in terms of life expectancy at birth, between Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Cape Verde. In terms of adult literacy rate as a percentage of those over 15 years old, we’re 46th, between Thailand and Singapore. If you look at combined primary, secondary and tertiary gross enrollment ratios, we’re 54th, between Bulgaria and Dominica, while looking at GDP per capita, we (at $5,137 per person) are between El Salvador ($5,137 per person) and Azerbaijan ($4,945 per person).

Per capita income leads us to the question of poverty, the statistic that matters the most to most people: one report by Leland Joseph R. dela Cruz of the Ateneo’s Social Development Program points out that if you ask people to rate themselves, twice as many people consider themselves poor as are actually defined as being poor by official government definitions.

This is the real problem governments have: on one hand, they have to undertake policies based on some sort of objective measurement of what constitutes poverty and health and so on; but voters, upon whom governments depend to stay in power, essentially make subjective judgments that official statistics are powerless to dispute. If you define yourself as impoverished, no amount of official drumbeating will convince you otherwise.

The National Statistical Coordination Board figures indicate that poverty among families actually fell from 1991 to 1997 while for individuals it fell steadily from 1988 to 1997; both figures started to climb until the manner in which they’re computed was redone in 2000, making a statistical clean break. Since then, poverty figures improved between 2000 and 2006, when they increased, basically returning to 2000 levels, wiping out the gains in between.

Which brings me to the point of this column. Very few citizens will look at the period from 1971 to 2009 from a holistic point of view, not least because the majority of the citizenry has no memory of this period; and much can be said concerning the period from 1986 to the present. Many more, though, of voting age, will have clear memories of the period 2000 to 2009, and for that period, one can argue that public perception agrees with the statistics. Things are getting worse, whatever gains have been made have been eroded, and so forth.

What I wonder is, do people recognize that one possible major difference between 1971 and 2009, and especially 1986 and 2009, is that social mobility has become impossible for an emerging permanent poor underclass in our country? And that people somehow realize that a fixed portion of our population has no hope of ever escaping poverty?

Manuel L. Quezon III.

2 thoughts on “The Long View: Permanently poor

  1. So what can government in this country do? – Realistically I,mean. Their argument – along with many republicans – is that sloth is the reason why people are poor? I know the government isn’t helping. Regardless, what answers can NGOs offer to ameliorate our conditions?

  2. One way to determine the severity of the “Permanent Underclass” theory is, of course, to measure it. Anecdotes won’t work because there will always be 10 households who are just as miserable now as they were twenty-years ago as just one can find 10 households whose lives improved (e.g. because of OFW-ism).

    Weren’t there a series of blogthread discussions about 6 months ago on just that issue {Monsod writing an inquirer-article (and cvj commenting on smuggling) in relation to per-capita-GDP}? I think the conclusion was that in fact, the rich got poorer (per-capita-GDP of upper 10% remained flat at best) while per-capita-GDP of bottom deciles increased.

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