Poverty: Will Arroyo Beat the Odds?
Arroyo administration consistently asserts that voting for its candidates
will mean an improvement in the economy. But will this election really put
an end to poverty?
Posted by Bulatlat
“Wala rin mangyayari”
(Nothing will change).
This was the reply of Bong, 30, a
pahinante (helper) when IBON Features asked him if he thought the
upcoming May national and local elections would improve the condition of
poor people like him.
Bong had been voting since he reached 18 and is currently a registered
voter in Mangahan, Pasig City. Still, he expressed support for an
opposition senatorial candidate with a youthful image.
Poverty will undoubtedly be a major
campaign issue in the elections. Administration “Team Unity” senatorial
candidates said they are undertaking campaigns in barangays to present the
Arroyo government’s 10-point “Beat the Odds” anti-poverty agenda to local
leaders and residents.
But as the past elections have shown,
Bong’s statement rings a sad truth: the elections will have no effect on
the lives of the poor.
The present administration’s lack of
understanding – or deliberate deceit – of the root causes of poverty, were
highlighted yet again by its responses when confronted by the growing
problem of involuntary hunger among Filipino families. First, the
president ordered concerned government agencies to alleviate the hunger
problem within six months. Then, it released P1 billion ($2.1 million
based on an exchange rate of $1:P47.64) for “emergency hunger mitigation.”
These are predictable responses for a government that views poverty in
terms of manipulating figures to get desired results.
People should be considered poor if they
have insufficient resources to maintain a decent standard of living and to
develop to their fullest potential. But under the Arroyo government’s
poverty framework, people are poor if their incomes fail to come up to an
unreasonably low poverty threshold (defined as the income an individual or
family needs to meet their basic food and non-food needs and thus, be
considered no longer poor).
According to 2007 poverty threshold
figures from the National Statistical Coordination Board, a worker in
Metro Manila who earns all of P1,612 ($33.84) a month or P53 ($1.11) a day
already has enough to meet his or her basic food and non-food needs, and
therefore government no longer considers them poor. For an average family
with six members, the poverty threshold would be P9,672 ($204.91) a month
or P318 ($6.68) a day.
But these amounts are clearly just enough
– at best – to maintain the barest physical existence. This is validated
by the National Wages and Productivity Commission’s own “living wage”
figures, which show that, as of January 2007, a family of six needs at
least P721 ($15.13) a day, or more than double government’s poverty
threshold, to meet its food and non-food needs. IBON estimates that eight
out of 10 Filipinos are poor.
Using the poverty threshold, the government claimed that it had reduced
the number of poor Filipinos from 25 million in 2000 to 20 million at
present. But poverty cannot be alleviated, much less addressed, by such
numerical manipulation. Poverty in the Philippines is deep-rooted and
results from the unequal character of the country’s economic system, which
is structured for the benefit of the interests of local and foreign elite.
This inequitable structure has resulted in weak agricultural and
manufacturing sectors, lack of jobs and livelihoods for the people.
Such situation is further exacerbated by
the implementation of neoliberal economic policies starting in the 1980s,
which opened the country’s markets to cheap imports, turned over public
services to profit-oriented private companies and opened to foreign
investors sectors previously restricted to local entrepreneurs and the
state. In the process these policies have also destroyed livelihoods, led
to widespread closures and retrenchments of local firms and driven
thousands of farmers off their lands.
Thus, it should not be surprising that
poverty continues to be a lingering social problem that has only gotten
worse under an administration that does not even appreciate its root
causes. In fact, it makes the problem worse by continuing to implement
such damaging economic policies instead of those that would bring about
genuine national development.
Beating the odds
This lack of understanding is reflected in
the aforementioned 10-point poverty alleviation strategy, which instead of
addressing the roots of poverty, hews to the foreign investment-driven
strategy Arroyo has been pursing since she came into power.
Beat the Odds is an acronym that stands
for: a balanced budget; education for all; automated elections; transport
and digital infrastructure to link the country; terminating hostilities
with the New People’s Army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front; healing
the wounds of EDSA; electricity and water for all barangays (villages);
opportunities to create six to eight million jobs; decongest Metro Manila
through the decentralization of government offices and new transport
infrastructure systems; develop Subic and Clark as globally competitive
logistic hubs in partnership with the private sector.
A closer examination of these strategies
reveals that, devoid of a genuine national development strategy that
addresses the country’s lack of industrialization and agricultural
backwardness, they will not alleviate poverty and will even worsen it.
Take, for example, the goal to achieve a
balanced budget. Economic planners recently announced that, with the
declining budget surpluses, government might reach its goal by next year.
And indeed, the Arroyo government’s budget surplus has fallen from a
peak of P816.2 billion in 2005 ($14.82 billion based on the average
exchange rate of $1:P55.09 for 2005) to P62 billion last year ($1.21
billion based on last year’s average exchange rate of $1:P51.31).
But government achieved this by squeezing
Filipinos through the double whammy of higher taxes and declining spending
on social services. The most onerous of these taxes is the reformed
value-added tax (RVAT), if only because of its sheer regressive nature.
The RVAT increased the VAT rate from 10 percent to 12 percent and removed
exemptions on gas and electricity. As a result, the tax generated P77
billion in net revenues in 2006 (($1.5 billion based on 2006 average
exchange rate), mostly by increasing the prices of basic goods and
Meanwhile, even as government was busy
counting tax revenues, it failed to deliver social payback to Filipinos in
the form of increased basic services. Real spending per capita on
education of P1,508 in 2006 is 22 percent ($29.39 based on 2006 average
exchange rate) lower than when Arroyo came into office in 2001, per
capita health spending of P159 ($3.10) is 25 percent lower and on
social security, welfare and employment of P532 ($10.37), 9 percent lower.
Thus, it should not be surprising that
government is far from its stated goal of providing “education for all.”
Millions of Filipino children, in fact, are unable to obtain a decent
education. Of every 100 children who enter Grade 1, only 66 percent will
finish elementary school, 43 percent high school and 14 percent college.
As a consequence, in 2006, some 2.5 million children aged 5 to 17 were
working either to augment their family’s incomes or to survive on their
Creating transport and digital infrastructure between the country’s
islands also sounds like a laudable goal. But given such problems as
widespread poverty in the countryside, and overall low computer ownership
in the country (only some two out of every 100 Filipinos owns a computer)
such infrastructure development may be designed primarily attract foreign
investors such as agri-business enterprises and business process
The government’s stated goal of
“opportunities” to create six to eight million jobs also seems doubtful,
given the absence of a national industrialization program or moves to
address problems of peasants in the countryside. It seems clear that the
Arroyo government will once again rely on foreign investors for job
creation even if decades of foreign direct investments coming in have not
contributed substantially to solving the employment crisis in the
Philippines. In this context, it should not be surprising that the
president has continuously reiterated her intention to pursue the removal
of economic sovereignty provisions in the current constitution, even in
the face of widespread public disapproval of such moves.
Clash of elite
When IBON Features asked Bong why he
believed that elections would not bring about change, he wisely replied,
“Ganoon pa rin y’ung nakaupo” (Those in power are still the same
His reply showed a discerning grasp of
what elections in the Philippines are all about, namely a clash of various
elite factions. Whichever group wins, administration, opposition or even
independent, it is still the interests of the local and foreign elite that
will be promoted over those of the poor Filipinos who make up the majority
of the population. Elections in the Philippines will not bring about the
kind of fundamental economic and social changes that the country badly
needs to truly progress.
That said, the upcoming polls are still
viewed as a referendum on the performance of the Arroyo government. And
with the consistent majority win of opposition bets predicted in various
surveys, it seems that voters are set to reject Arroyo, if only because
they see that her policies have only worsened their lives over the past
six years. IBON Features / Posted by Bulatlat
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© 2007 Bulatlat
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