No Free Lunch

Are the poor too lazy?

In ongoing fieldwork for a study on persistent poverty, my fellow researchers and I keep hearing a statement that we’ve heard said over and over for many years: The poor are poor dahil tamad sila (because they are lazy).

We’ve heard it from government and nongovernment community poverty workers, mayors and other local officials, officials of regional line agencies, and often, common folk from poor communities themselves.


It was a grade school social studies teacher who I first heard describe coconut as the “lazy man’s crop,” several decades ago. The coconut farmer is pictured as having only to wait every 60 days or so to harvest his crop, doing virtually nothing in between. To this date, it is estimated that two in every three coconut farmers plant nothing between their coconut trees, even as those who intercrop their coconut trees with coffee, cacao, pineapple and the like can earn up to four times more.

It’s now well-known that the poorest of the poor in the Philippines are coconut farmers, along with coastal fisherfolk. Are two-thirds of our coconut farmers too lazy, then, making them deserve the poverty they are mired in?


Dr. Jose Rizal wrote of the “indolence of the Filipino” well over a century ago, observing, even then, a seeming laziness among our people. Controversial as the notion was, much of his observations then that led to his use of the contested adjective remain true today. Rizal did not say that Filipinos are naturally indolent; rather, he argued it to be the effect of circumstances prevailing around them, including the hot climate.

For this reason, the Spaniard is more indolent than the Frenchman, who in turn is more so than the German—observations that he took to be empirical fact. But more than climate, Rizal blamed man-made “social disorders”: abuse and discrimination, government inaction, rampant corruption and red tape, misplaced church doctrines, and bad examples from some Spaniards who led lives of indolence. It was these, he believed, that had corrupted the Filipinos’ attitudes and values over centuries under Spanish colonization.

Do the Filipino poor possess a “culture of poverty,” as first expounded by anthropologist Oscar Lewis, which transcends generations, and is commonly observed among the poor across national boundaries? It is described as a state where people have become devoid of aspirations and initiative.

Lewis held that the culture of poverty is “both an adaptation and a reaction of the poor to their marginal position in a class-stratified, highly individualistic, capitalistic society.” It comes with the feeling of helplessness and fatalism that leads the poor to consciously or unconsciously subvert interventions to improve their wellbeing. I’ve heard some poverty workers throw up their arms in frustration, having reached the conclusion that the poor they work with are beyond help.

But are they, really? Could we just be looking the wrong way, seeing “laziness” as cause, when it, too, is the effect of more underlying factors and failures of our government and society?

In focus group discussions with officials, community workers and poor residents themselves, we don’t accept laziness as an explanation in itself for persistent poverty. We deliberately press the group further to understand why such “laziness” prevails. In one municipality with hundreds of hectares of idle but tillable lands, it looked at first like the townspeople lacked the initiative to make productive use of the abundant resource. But it turned out that one of the country’s large property developers already owned the lands, engaged in typical land banking for future development—and they wouldn’t have anyone else touch the lands in the meantime.

It is now also a common lament that young people even from farming communities refuse to farm. Some see it as a “millennial thing,” when it is really failed agricultural policies that have made agriculture the unattractive occupation it is now.


Laziness and the culture of poverty are not inherent and inevitable blocks to poverty reduction, as many see them to be. These are, in fact, the very object of the change we all want to see, and need to work together for.

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TAGS: laziness, people, Poverty
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