01:06 AM July 20th, 2013

By: Mahar Mangahas, July 20th, 2013 01:06 AM

In my view, the proper message in the recent observation that “only” 71 percent of the beneficiaries of the conditional cash transfer or Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program in 2011 were “income-poor” is that the program is successfully hitting the bull’s-eye 71 percent of the time.

To me, the other 29 percent should not be called “leakages,” as though regrettable, but simply non-bull’s-eyes.  There’s more to a target besides the bull’s-eye. If hitting the first or center circle of a target of 10 concentric circles is worth 10 points, then hitting the second circle is worth nine points, and the next worth eight points, and so on down to one point.  What matters is hitting the target of serving the poor, including those whose incomes somewhat exceed the arbitrary official boundary of poverty.

I base my view on the experience of Social Weather Stations in doing field interviews for surveys for the Pantawid program since 2011. These surveys, partly for spot-checking field operations and partly for evaluating program impact, were contracted to SWS, after competitive bidding, by the Department of Social Welfare and Development  and/or World Bank and/or Asian Development Bank.  (The sampling and the questionnaires were predesigned by the sponsors; SWS’ role was to faithfully fulfill their technical specs, just as a builder fulfills the design of an architect.)

To the SWS field workers, virtually all the Pantawid beneficiaries appeared poor, with most of them extremely poor, and some even pitiably poor.  Perhaps a few beneficiaries seemed middle-class, but definitely there were no rich ones.

The Pantawid program is able to hit its target consistently because it is the only government program that operates with a National Household Targeting System for Poverty Reduction.  The NHTS-PR has a database of basic characteristics, including living conditions and key assets, of 10.8 million households in poverty-prone areas, as of 2009.  These characteristics exclude income, since a standard income survey of millions of people is unaffordable, but they are able to proxy for income, through a formula devised from other surveys that can relate income to the said characteristics.

With incomes below the poverty line defined as lacking “the means,” and thus deserving of public subsidy, a “means test” is needed to determine who to target for the subsidy.  In 2009, using a “proxy means test” calibrated to the NSCB (i.e. official) poverty line of that year, the NHTS-PR identified 5.2 million families as poor, and put them into the initial Pantawid target list.  These 5.2 million were, in effect, Pantawid’s initial bull’s-eye.

Two years later, however, in February 2011, the National Statistical Coordination Board unexpectedly and arbitrarily lowered the official poverty line for reference year 2009—calling its new line a “refined” poverty line—and then estimated that only 3.9 million families in the entire Philippines were below the line. (It had downgraded the daily food menu—banning sinangag, removing milk for children, changing all meats to fish, replacing galunggong with dilis, and cutting bananas from two to one.  It simply allotted 31 centavos for nonfood needs for every 69 centavos of food costs.  See my Inquirer columns, “The lowering of the official poverty line,” 2/12/2011; “The poor don’t live by bread alone,” 3/5/2011; and “No meat allowed for the poor,” 10/8/2011.)

In effect, the NSCB was claiming that the NHTS-PR had, two years earlier, overstated total national poverty by 5.2-3.9=1.4 million families.  But, if there had been a mistake in estimating the numbers of the poor, it was not the fault of the NHTS-PR.

And so the poverty bull’s-eye suddenly shrunk, but not due to real economic progress.  If 1.4 million families could cross the border from “poor” to “nonpoor” by a mere click on the keyboard, it seems to me that a reclassification of some Pantawid beneficiaries as “nonpoor” is not so grievous as to deserve the opprobrious term of “leakage.”  Those “nonpoor” cannot be too far off from the bull’s-eye.

Thus far, a child’s enrolment in Pantawid has been limited to only five years, whereas its foreign counterparts usually allow twice as long. The recent policy announcement by Budget Secretary Florencio Abad that Pantawid will be continued up to the completion of high school is a very good move, since it will open the prospect of decent wages to many more children of the poor.  Yet 30 percent of Filipino adults still have not gone further than elementary school; social justice demands that they not be left behind. (See my Inquirer column, “Learning to fish takes time,” 3/8/2013.)

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The alleged Pantawid “leakage” mentioned in the presentation by Celia M. Reyes et al. of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, “Promoting Inclusive Growth Through the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program,” at the Global Development Conference, Asian Development Bank, June 19-21, 2013, was based on income of Pantawid beneficiaries in the government’s 2011 Annual Poverty Indicators Survey.

For the DSWD’s evaluation of the impact of the first Pantawid wave, see, 3/4/2013, and World Bank Report 75533-PH:, 1/22/2013, using data from the survey contracted to SWS.

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