Higher social pension for poor senior citizens

This week I had interesting interactions with senior citizens in some barangays of Quezon City, Manila, and the cities of Caloocan and Malabon. These were public forums that had been organized to encourage voter participation in the mid-term elections to be held on May 13.

They were visibly very poor: and physically their communities haven’t changed much since I began visiting in 2001. Two places I visited in Manila and Malabon consisted mostly of shanties with very little, if any, spaces in between: scraggly structures made of discarded wood and cardboard boxes, recycled plastic sheets and old tarpaulin signs. In fact, the dwellings have become even more crowded than when our party-list group Bayan Muna (of which I’m president) first began inquiring into their lives and organizing around their everyday concerns.

How can they even begin to take a step forward? For nearly 30 years now, the people in some areas of Catmon (in Malabon City), have been struggling to defend their flimsy homes against the demolition attempts of private parties claiming ownership of the lots they occupy. Armed goons have been harassing them, and one community leader has been killed while another escaped an armed attack on his home.

At least two families, who challenged the ownership claims in the lower courts, have won their initial legal fights through the free legal aid of human-rights lawyers. How far they still have to go, and their neighbors too, we don’t know. For now they’re trying to find a bit of satisfaction in these little victories.

But when I met with the community leaders, they were in combative mood and high spirits.

And definitely, when we began talking about the possibility of pushing for a social pension for them, their faces lighted up. They were interested to be updated about the pending legislation in the House of Representatives, which seeks to increase to at least P1,000 the measly P500 monthly social pension or stipend provided to certain indigent senior citizens by the current law.

In fact, many of them had already joined march-rallies at the gate of the Batasang Pambansa in support of the proposed legislation, which there are eight versions. At public hearings held by the House committee on population and family relations, they have shown keen interest in Bayan Muna’s version of the bill, filed on Oct. 4, 2016, which would raise the social pension to P2,000 and remove the restrictive qualifications for indigent senior citizens to receive the aid.

The eight versions of the proposed legislation, which the House committee has consolidated in one bill, all aim to amend the provision pertaining to social pension under Republic Act 9994 (the Expanded Senior Citizens Act of 2010). The law has already been amended twice. Section 2 of RA 9994 states:

“Indigent senior citizen refers to any elderly who is frail, sickly, or with disability and without pension or permanent source of income, compensation or financial assistance from his/her relatives for support [in] his/her basic needs, as determined by the Department of Social Work and Development (DSWD) in consultation with the National Coordinating and Monitoring Board.”

The consolidated bill is now going through the legislative mill. The amendments it proposes are as follows:

• The social pension – or the “monthly stipend or monetary grant from the government to augment the daily subsistence and other medical needs of senior citizens” – shall not be less than P1,000.

The qualifying phrase, “who are frail, sickly or with disability,” has been deleted. The deletion, which Bayan Muna explicitly espoused, has been roundly welcomed by the poor senior citizens.

• All senior citizens without pension and who are receiving pension amounting to P3,500 and lower from the Government Service Insurance System or GSIS (retired government employees), the Social Security System or SSS (retired private sector workers), and the Pension and Gratuity Management Center (PGMC) shall be entitled to a monthly stipend of at least P1,000.

• Congress shall review the amount of the pension every two years, in consultation with the Commission on Senior Citizens (an entity proposed in a separate legislation), or in its absence, the DSWD, taking into account the national inflation rate and other relevant economic indicators.

• Any senior citizen may opt not to receive the monthly social pension and instead donate it to the Office for Senior Citizens Affairs (OSCA) or to any government-accredited nongovernmental organization (NGO) for senior citizens operating in the congressional district where the donor resides. The donation shall be used to augment the medical needs of senior citizens in the district.

For too long a time, the welfare of senior citizens and retirees has been poorly given attention and appropriate action by the government. For a broader and deeper perspective on this issue, here are some relevant data.

Statistics available at the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) show how the number of senior citizens has been increasing through the years. In 1995, there were 3.7 million (5.4 percent of the population). The number had increased to 5.8 million, or 6.5 percent of the population, by 2010. The latest PSA data show that senior citizens number 7.8 million, or 16.2 percent of the population.

A study by the Coalition of Services of the Elderly (Cose) showed only 17 percent of senior citizens receive the mandatory P500 monthly social pension, according to IBON Foundation.

Among the pensioners under the SSS program, 2.2 million retirees (27 percent of the elderly) receive at least the minimum P1,200 monthly pension; the average SSS pension is P3,200/month. Under the GSIS program, 272,000 retirees (3.5 percent of the elderly) are receiving at least the minimum P5,000 monthly pension.

Altogether, only 3.4 million, or 42.9 percent of all senior citizens, receive pensions from the SSS, the GSIS, and the Expanded Senior Citizens Law. The majority of 4.5 million (57 percent) are not covered by any program and don’t receive any pension at all.

Indeed, the P1,000 additional social pension now pending in the House, though clearly inadequate to meet the elderly’s needs, must be urgently approved. And much more needs to be done, even in the cases of the SSS and the GSIS. This is where public awareness and social organizing need to focus.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
Feb. 16, 2019

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