Poverty, inequality and social reform

The impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona and the broadened debate on constitutional issues are not going to bring out masses of the poor to take sides. To them, the turmoil is a power struggle within the leadership class and it distracts from the central issue in our society—poverty and gross inequalities.

There is an elephant in the room and the contending forces are too preoccupied with the part of the truth in front of them to see the reality of the whole.


In the process, many matters of more urgent priority to the poor are being neglected. The latest being the disaster in Mindanao, which still happened despite conferences and warnings since 2009.

The 25th anniversary of People Power and the elections of 2010 put another Aquino at the helm of government, with the political capital (48 percent of the vote) to make the big decisions for the big changes that the people really want.


To the poor, Edsa was more than the changing of the guard. It was the dawning of a new day.


That new day remains a promise. The task then was liberation from the heavy hand of martial rule. The task today is no less heroic—liberation from the yoke of poverty that will make democracy more meaningful to the poor.

It is not only guns that kill. Poverty kills. It is slow death from hunger, from diseases that we thought no longer existed, from the loneliness of a life with an empty future. It is also the dying of dignity.

Twenty-five years after Edsa, where are we on that promise?

Ranks of poor grow

The government family income and expenditures survey (2009) showed that the incidence of poverty went down from 35.15 percent in 1988 to 26.49 percent in 2009, but the number of the poor increased from 21.3 million to 23.9 million.


By “poor” we mean a per capita income of less than P46 a day. And of these 23.9 million, 9.4 million were “food poor” who lived on P32 a day, not even enough to meet the minimum 2,000 calories a day.

Reducing hunger has been dismal, based on the surveys by Social Weather Stations (SWS). From 1998 to 2010, the average percentage of hungry families was 13.7.

Hunger has steadily increased. The latest SWS report this year showed hunger at 20.5 percent in March, down to 15.1 percent in July and up again to 21.5 percent in October.

Income inequality

Income inequality has not changed since Edsa. The top 1 percent of families (185,000) have an income equal to the income of the bottom 30 percent (5,500,000). And since studies show that there is very little of a middle class to speak of, this means that most of the 99 percent are also poor.

The Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016 says that our economy has grown an average of 3 percent a year and our real per capita income has increased 20 percent over the past 30 years. In contrast, our neighbors’ per capita incomes have grown 400 percent (Malaysia), 500 percent (Thailand), 1,100 percent (China), in the process eradicating absolute poverty.

History has not been kind to our poor.

Two worlds

We are a nation of two worlds.

The world of the few, with gated communities, with access to superior education, First World health care, private parks and leisure areas, and the money to control our politics and policies; and

The world of the many, with urban hovels and rural huts, inferior public schools, playgrounds that double as public streets and highways,  poorly equipped and poorly manned public-health centers and marginal access to public office.


We are a country of contradictions:

We are an agrarian economy but import rice and other agricultural products;

We have abundant fishery resources but our municipal fishermen have dwindling fish harvests;

Our coconut industry has earned billions of pesos but our coconut farmers are among the poorest of the poor;

The indigenous peoples used to own all the land but are now land-poor;

We have First World amenities in urban areas but no places to house the poor;

Our workers are among the best in the world but don’t have security of tenure in their own country;

We have huge mineral resources but poverty incidence is highest (48.7 percent) in the mining sector;

Our country is one of the top biodiversity and endemicity areas of the world, but our mountains are denuded;

We have some of the best social justice and empowerment laws but corrupted judicial rulings victimize the poor.

Still feudalistic

Above all, our society is still feudalistic, dominated by a leadership class that rotates among themselves the levers of power through changes in administration.

This 1 percent of the families make the laws, dispense justice, implement programs and control media. The good people among them go to church, participate in community projects and donate to charities.

They sincerely think that using their power and influence to advance self-interest is part of the dynamics of democracy.

Root of problem

Sadly, they miss the point. There is nothing wrong with wealth and power, and special connections, but there is something very wrong about using them to worsen the gross inequalities or to deny or delay justice to the 99 percent. That is the root of our problem. And we know this must change.

The widespread perception that real power is not with the people is enough for them to distrust government and make it even harder to govern. We encounter that phenomenon every day. People engaging in corruption because everybody else does it. People violating simple traffic rules because no one is obeying them anyway.  And we know this must change.

Selling votes

On Election Day, the people feel empowered by an accurate vote count. But before Election Day in the choice of candidates and after Election Day on how the elected officials make decisions, they know that the real power is somewhere else.

So the poor sell that one day of power for what it is worth and they are criticized for it. But isn’t self-interest, and the not the common good, also the rule on how the rich vote? And we know this must change or democracy itself is imperiled because the poor can only take so much.

Tax perks

If there is not enough money for antipoverty programs why does the government give tax perks worth P90 billion a year to profitable businesses? And not collect evaded taxes P160 billion a year from rich professionals worth?

Why not change the tax base for “sin taxes” to collect P25 billion a year more in taxes? Why close our eyes to legislators’ commissions from public works projects of P20 billion to P40 billion a year? Why allow the rich to avail themselves of subsidy programs for the poor (National Food Authority, Pag-Ibig Fund)? This system of privilege bleeds the budget for the poor. And this must change.

Strike at roots

The Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016 has an impressive wish list. But as Thoreau suggests, we can hack away at the branches of a tree of evil but it will keep on growing until we strike at its roots. Every development plan is an agenda for change—growth with equity, inclusive growth. But, so far, none of the plans have produced the desired results. Is this because no administration has the political will to implement these plans or because these plans do not strike at the roots but only at the branches?

The participants in a recent conference on poverty were asked if the development plan, the President’s Social Compact and his two Sonas effectively addressed their deepest concerns and aspirations. And if the Aquino administration can provide the transformational leadership the country badly needs. This is not the first time the poor have spoken.

Few listened

The poor expressed themselves in the National Rural Congress II (2007) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and in the Consultations on Climate Change (2010), but few listened. They engaged in street protests in Mendiola in 1986 and other parts of the country over the years (lives were even lost), and they went on fasting vigils, but few listened. The changes have not happened.

The poor support the campaign against corruption as a correct beginning. Pursuing asset reform is a welcome priority except that it is contradicted by inadequate financing. The direct targeting of the very poor through the conditional-cash transfer delivers positive results.

But targeting cannot be a long-term solution to mass poverty in which the very poor, the poor and the near poor live side by side and the floating very poor, in both urban and rural areas, are under the radar screen. The indigenous peoples are not being compensated for conserving the environment and climate-change management continues to be deficient.

The poor ask: If the programs are not reaching us, or improving our lives, are our leaders prepared to discard discredited paradigms? Such as the notion that it is possible to address poverty without addressing inequality and that it is enough to provide “equality of opportunity” or a “fair process” without being too concerned about “outcomes.”

Challenges of change

And they also ask: Are the rich and the powerful willing to accept the challenges of change?

The challenge to speak out on specific cases simply because justice demands it. Such as  Hacienda Luisita, the Arroyo Bacan hacienda and the Teves estates, involving people in high paces where farmers fought lonely battles.  The basic sectors have stories to tell about the lands of business titans—the Yulos and Ayalas in Canlubang, the Angs in Calatagan, Fortiches in Bukidnon, and Florendos and Drysdales in Davao.

The challenge for the business community to give a big share of its resources because massive expenditures are needed for social programs. The channeling by some 270 corporations of about P8 billion over 40 years to the Philippine Business for Social Progress is tokenism, when it takes P100 billion a year to put 5.5 million families over the poverty threshold. With some exceptions, corporate social responsibility projects have achieved very little by way of real change.

The challenge to the government to disallow projects that, in the words of Paul Krugman, socialize costs and privatize benefits, such as  mining, the biggest problem cited—in Surigao, Albay, the Cordillera Administrative Region, Palawan, Samar, Caraga and Zamboanga provinces—where the poor hope that the Aquino administration is not misled by the industry in the face of their personal testimonies on the hardships it brings them, including the social divisions through the wrong use of money.

The challenge to Church, business and political leaders to commit their social power and political capital to promote the agenda of the poor, even when it is against their own interests, or those of their benefactors and campaign contributors.

And finally the challenge of a vision of a society finally rid of feudalism.

Common good

These are difficult demands they ask of those who have the wealth and the power—to reduce themselves for the common good. But that is what is needed to help destroy the roots that feed the branches that kill rather than sustain life. The stakes are high. We are engaged not only in fighting poverty but also in saving our democracy.

And until the two worlds around us become one, until we do away with the contradictions in our society, and in the words of Michael Sandel in his book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? “until there is a larger purpose to what we do, when citizens finally bring the habits of the heart to public life and find a way to cultivate civic virtue,” we cannot speak of solidarity and of ourselves as one nation.

In the wise words of two people in our pursuit of a just society:

From Him who gave up his life that we may also enjoy the bounty of his creation: “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do it to me.”

To paraphrase Albert Camus when he received his Nobel Peace Prize—“we must place ourselves at the service, not of those who make history, but of those who suffer it.”

(Christian S. Monsod, a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission, is a former chair of the Commission on Elections. This article is based on his  keynote address at a Summit on Poverty, Inequality and Social Reform early this month.)

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