The myth of the lazy poor
It has been said many times before, and it will be said many times in the future: The poor are lazy — and that’s why they’re poor. “Poverty is a choice,” many have said, adding: “If only people would work hard, they won’t be poor.”
Today’s politicians offer variations on the same theme — from Ben Diokno saying, “If you’re hardworking, you won’t go hungry in the Philippines,” to the United States’ Ben Carson calling poverty a “state of mind.” As scholars who have actually worked in poor communities have pointed out, these sentiments are inaccurate and dangerous.
It is inaccurate because many if not most of our poor are actually hardworking. Just think of the “taho” vendor who wakes up at 3 a.m. and carries his metal buckets while shouting “Taho!” all day. Drawing from her extensive fieldwork, the anthropologist Mary Racelis asserts that far from the image of the idle “tambay,” “the urban poor make up the work force of the city… Metro Manila thrives because of their presence and cannot operate without them.”
Now, it cannot be denied that some poor people appear to be lazy. But why are many of them lazy in the first place? As early as 1890, Jose Rizal recognized that indolence is not the cause, but the effect, of our country’s problems, and stems in part from people’s lack of motivation. “Man works for an object,” he wrote. “Remove the object and you reduce him to inaction.” Will you work hard for a very low wage, knowing that much of the profit will go to others, and at the end of the day, you’re no less uncertain about tomorrow?
Part of the problem lies from the thinking that the world is a meritocracy, an outlook based on our middle- and upper-class sensibilities: If you work hard in school, you expect to be rewarded with scholarships; if you work hard in your job, you will be promoted.
But what if you can’t go to school in the first place? And what if you’re a “contractual”—not even a regular employee?
Beyond its lack of factual basis, blaming poverty on indolence is dangerous because it deflects attention from its structural reasons. In Manila, big companies have profited from the cheap, hard labor that many Filipinos are forced to engage in, but who else has benefited? Poverty implicates a failure of government to provide basic needs and opportunities—not a failure of people to work.
Moreover, it legitimizes, not just reflects, the status quo. The fact that colonizers espoused the same myth of indolence about their colonized speaks of its being a convenient mythology, one that justifies oppression. That Jose Rizal devoted an entire essay on the topic is also quite telling: Surely, he saw the danger of such a view in contributing to the naturalization of social and economic inequalities.
Debunking the myth of the lazy poor does not mean denying the accomplishments of people who have escaped poverty by their hard work, or diminishing the value of industry in our lives. Surely, I can keep drawing strength from my grandfather Apolonio, who sidelined as a jeepney driver to support his five daughters—just as we can keep drawing inspiration from the janitors who obtain a bachelor’s degree, or the security guards whose children top the board exams.
The unintended consequence of our feel-good stories, however, is that they can lead us to think everyone has the same shot at success; that all janitors can actually work their way through college, and all security guards can provide quality education for all their children if they put their mind to it. But again, people’s lived realities say otherwise.
“Even if you have a college degree, if you don’t have a ‘backer,’ you’ll still end up jobless here,” a woman from Northern Samar recently told me. “With the rising prices, we have barely enough to eat,” lamented an out-of-school youth from Quezon City who now works as an assistant in a “carinderia” but wanted, and still wants, to be an engineer.
Given what we know, then, we should no longer be debating the notion that people are poor because they are lazy. Indeed, the real question we must ask is why, despite people’s hard and precarious work, they remain stuck in unacceptable poverty while, despite their incompetence and indifference, many of our politicians wallow in unacceptable wealth.
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