How did the midterm elections affect the urban poor? More than any other group, the poor need free elections to improve their lives, but the simple truth seems to be that in the last poll exercise they hardly benefited. It was partly their own doing.
The urban poor in the Philippines now number about 20 million, according to the UN Habitat. They are the fastest growing of poor sectors. They live in the larger cities, the great engines of the economy, but to paraphrase the Gospel, they are in but not of the great wealth found there. They are like the small fish along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef that clean parasites off the sharks, manta rays and other highly dangerous marine creatures. The big fish drop by these special “cleaning” areas when they feel the need, the little fish who love to eat parasites do a first-class cleaning job, even going into the gills and jaws of the sharks, then the big fish sail off, leaving the small fish with nothing in the great ocean but their parasites.
There was a sticker used in the election of 2010 that read: “In a democracy, reform comes from the ballots of the poor.” It expresses the classic belief of people organizing the poor, that if they can gather the poor into political parties that are informed and eager for change, they can win political power through elections, and then use the power to help the poor.
I don’t see that this happened in the last elections, except in very small areas of Manila, in very small ways. Still, elections remain the main political hope of the poor. Realistically, there is no other path to a decent life. But for now, the politicians who believe they can win the poor people’s votes at election time by giving them money and food, coopting their leaders and making endless airy promises, have been proven right once again.
Thousands of poor people have sold their votes. They have taken money in exchange for their free democratic votes that are the key to the locks and chains that hold them in poverty. People who sell their votes lose their self-respect and agree with the powerful that change is not needed, or possible. Taking money encourages the power-brokers to manipulate the poor all the more.
Why should anyone help such poor people? But before we start blaming the poor, we should remember that while among the poor there may be pimps, men of violence, drunkards, as well as lazy, greedy and vulgar people, there are even more decent, hardworking and caring ones.
There are many good people among the poor. I once saw a heavily pregnant woman walking barefoot through her slum community. Her dress was stretched so tight around her swollen belly that we feared her child could be hurt. She had no money to buy a more suitable dress. She had nothing to offer her baby except herself. All her life she will sacrifice for her children though she is hungry, unhappy and often a victim of violence. She will never give up on them.
There are innocent victims. Think of the 12-year-old prostitutes who work along the piers of Tondo at night. They charge P30 ($.75 cents) for touching (pakalog, groping) and P300 ($7) for sex, often in the back of a truck, with the men who hang out at the piers. When you see two or three of the girls together, you are aware they still have the thin legs and the awkward, shy stance of children. They should be playing childhood games, not waiting for customers.
The great reason for helping the urban poor is, of course, that God is with the poor. God is not with them because they are good and deserving of help any more than He was with the Israelites because they were good. He helps the poor, as the Prophet Ezekiel tells us, just as He helped the Israelites, not because they are good, but for the sake of His Own Holy Name.
At the risk of trivializing a serious matter, here is how things may work. A smart fish who has traveled outside his or her own sea—someone like Nemo, perhaps—one day advises the small fish-cleaners: “You don’t have to do what the sharks and manta rays want. You are not slaves. Organize yourselves, elect leaders and tell the sharks you are tired of your parasite diet, and you want the sharks and others to bring a variety of food when they come, or no cleaning.”
“Suppose they just eat us instead?” one of the small fish asks.
“If they eat you, there will be no one to remove the parasites, and that will pain them more and more. Don’t worry, stick together, and they’ll do what you want,” the smart fish says.
So the small fish stand firm and confront the sharks and the other great fish. The small fish win, and they now live with dignity and have expanded their services to include beauty treatments, massage, and organizing advice. The fish who started it all is now a Senator of the Sea.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [email@example.com].