Making numbers count
The usefulness of statistics about the people’s conditions is much affected by their credibility and timeliness.
Consider this recent report, “Poorer than we think: Malaysia’s official poverty figures ‘vastly’ undercounted, says UN expert,” in the Star, Malaysia’s top-circulation English newspaper (thestar.com.my, 8/23/19).
The Star’s item is about Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights—the same person who criticized the Duterte administration’s war on drugs—who could not believe the official report that poverty in Malaysia was already a mere 0.4 percent of households in 2016, from 49 percent in 1970.
Alston faulted the national poverty line of 980 ringgit per month for a family of four, which equals only US$2 per person per day. He told the Star: “This is a tragically low line for a country on the cusp of attaining high income status, especially since a range of rigorous independent analyses have suggested a more realistic poverty rate of 16 to 20%.”
How about the Philippines, where the official poverty line, for the first semester (S1) of 2018, is P10,481 per month for a family of five? That is US$1.35 per person per day (at the rate of 52:1), or less than the Malaysian poverty line. Mr. Alston would probably not believe the Philippine line either.
Poverty among Filipino families in 2018S1 is officially 16.1 percent, whereas SWS’ self-rated poverty averaged 45 percent in quarters 1 and 2 (Q1 and Q2) of 2018. The difference is due, of course, to the much lower minimum living standard that satisfies the government for the people to have, compared to the minimum living standard that the people themselves aspire for.
Although we strongly disagree with the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) about the scale of poverty, we do agree that poverty was lower in 2018S1 than in 2015S1, the last previous official reference point for poverty (“Consistency in poverty trends,” Opinion, 4/13/19).
Actually, we already knew, by mid-2018, that Philippine poverty fell from 2015S1 to 2018S1. This is because SWS measures poverty every three months, whereas the PSA measures it only every three years. On the criterion of timeliness, the PSA monitoring of poverty is most inadequate.
PSA is now doing its official estimate for 2018S2, so as to complete the year 2018. But we already knew, six months ago, that self-rated poverty rose to 52 percent in 2018Q3, and then fell only slightly to 50 percent in 2018Q4. So we expect PSA to also find a rise in poverty in 2018S2, if its trend continues to follow that of SWS.
The next official reference year for poverty is 2021, with findings to be published in 2022, when the Duterte administration will already be ending. I wish PSA would measure poverty in 2019 and 2020 also; but there seems to be no plan.
The only nonstop surveys about poverty are those of SWS. Self-rated poverty fell steeply to 38 percent in 2019Q1, which was good to see, but then it bounced back up to 45 percent in 2019Q2 (“2nd Quarter 2019 Social Weather Survey: Self-Rated Poverty and Self-Rated Food Poverty Bounce up,” www.sws.org.ph, 7/20/19). Thus, the 12-point gain in March 2019 was already cut by half by June.
In 1992, as soon as SWS could afford to spend for quarterly surveys, it already had poverty on the agenda. Measuring poverty with as much timeliness as other matters means giving it equal importance. In particular, it lets poverty count for just as much as the quarterly gross national product.
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