Latest poverty measure: excluding the poor from the poverty count

The Philippines seemed closer to reaching the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing poverty by half than if the old poverty methodology were used

MANILA — At 10 p.m., Aling Teresing, a mother in her mid-40s together with her 18-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son begin flattening scrap boxes to sleep on along the sidewalks of Guadalupe A single parent, Aling Teresing who works as a dispatcher of taxi cabs and earns up to Php200 a day, is thankful that her daily albeit irregular income usually affords them three modest meals a day.

Despite the wanting condition of her family, Aling Teresing’s lot falls very well above the poverty threshold set by government’s most recent poverty methodology. The 2011 poverty methodology pegs the poverty threshold – or the minimum amount required to meet a family’s basic food and non-food needs – at Php46 per Filipino per day, or Php6 lower than with the earlier methodology in use.

The third revision to date (the first being in 1992, the second in 2003), the 2011 methodology yielded a lower increase in the number of poor by 970,000 or from 22.17 in 2006 to 23.14 in 2009. The new count also reduced the number of hungry Filipinos by 58,000 families or around 290,000 individuals. As a result, the Philippines was deemed closer to reaching the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing poverty by half by 2015 than if the old poverty methodology were used. At the very least this makes the country’s economy appear to be improving, which is supposed to be good news for businesses here and abroad.

However, halfway into the Aquino administration’s second year in office until today, the 2011 poverty methodology comes under fire for reducing the number of poor by sheer term and method redefinition and not by employing substantial programs and policies that would physically and strategically address the causes of poverty.

Forced diet

The 2011 methodology made use of a revised food menu that consisted of the cheapest food combinations deemed to satisfy nutritional requirements for three meals daily. Methodology revisions through the decades have seen the eventual removal of basic consumer expenditure categories which before included non-food needs such as recreation and durable furniture and equipment. The 1992 revision also began using the consumption pattern of families in the food threshold rather than that of families with six members to estimate the poverty line or threshold.

Even then, estimating poverty was based on a basket of goods that were assumed to satisfy decent living as the basket included many fruits, vegetables and fresh fish. But eventually, fresh fish has been replaced with the much cheaper salted fish group. Ten fruits have been removed through the years, leaving only lakatan, latundan, saba, orange and papaya in the food basket. Baguio beans, carrots, sitsaro, green native papaya and cucumber also no longer belong to the food basket.

The newest menu has removed children’s milk for breakfast, and any extra separate viand of fish or meat and fruit dessert beyond once a day. It recommends coffee and cream, scrambled egg and boiled rice in the morning; boiled monggo with malunggay leaves and dilis, boiled rice and banana latundan for lunch; fried fish, boiled kangkong and boiled rice for dinner and pandesal for snack. Based on this, the food threshold – or the minimum amount required to meet food needs – is currently pegged at Php32.02 per person per day or Php10.70 per meal.

The 2011 methodology also saw the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) beginning to use provincial food bundles to determine the provincial food threshold in the objective of making the food combinations acceptable across regions. It is derived using the test of revealed preference, a tool prescribed by the World Bank which would supposedly reflect actual spending patterns on food. This however put the methodology into question because the result may reflect not necessarily the pattern of preference but that of spending for cheaper food forced on Filipinos because of their poverty.

Decent standards?

The new methodology actually omits counting families like Aling Teresing’s among the poor. Like them, families that have no permanent residence, as well as those living in the slums and dangerous places such as under bridges and along sewers were not included in the poverty surveys because of the temporary nature of their residence, explained the Department of Social Work and Development. There were around 517,000 such households or 2.6 million individuals in Metro Manila as of March 2011. Subsequently, compared to other regions, Metro Manila saw a lower poverty incidence at that time. The poverty incidence is the percentage of poor compared to the total population.

Defining poverty at the subsistence level, the 2011 methodology puts the poverty threshold where a family can survive at the barest existence to spend for food, mobility and any shelter from natural elements during the night.

Also given the low poverty threshold, the Php446 daily minimum wage in the National Capital Region (NCR) would appear more than enough for a family of five or six. But aside from the question of compliance by companies, this minimum wage has been criticized for forming only 43.8% of the NCR family living wage. Thus, the new poverty methodology not only serves to offer a prospect of Philippine development by showing less and less Filipinos to be poor; it also serves to embolden employers to bat for a lower minimum wage.

Meanwhile, the Aquino administration’s anti-poverty programs such as the Conditional Cash Transfers and Public-Private Partnerships continue to be exposed not only as non-solutions to poverty but as a smokescreen for the pitfalls of neoliberal policies that perpetuate poverty.

Not surprisingly, Aling Teresing shook her head when asked if her family felt the economic growth that Malacanang recently touted. “Ganito pa rin naman kami (We are still in this situation),” she said, as she tucked her family on their makeshift bed for the night. IBON Features

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