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State of the 100M

The President’s State of the Nation Address left me feeling somewhat fatigued, from statistical overload. It was not so much the numbers per se as where and how the figures were presented.

Here’s an example: “The Disbursement Acceleration Program contributed P1.6 billion to Tesda’s Training for Work Scholarship Program. This amount enabled the graduation of 223,615 beneficiaries; 66 percent of these—or 146,731 graduates—now have jobs.”  (I’m using the English translation that appeared in the Inquirer website.)

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The President then went into a mini-math class, showing how much the government invested in each scholar (P7,155) and how, if that scholar entered the BPO (business process outsourcing) sector, he would earn about P234,000 each year.

Good news has greater impact when said in concise terms: We trained more young people in technical and vocational fields, and gave them jobs. The government sees education as an investment: each successful Tesda graduate means families fed, housed, clothed.

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But then people do want numbers, statistics giving a statement more authority. I heard one radio commentator saying after the Sona that there are 33 million Filipinos in the labor force, and 22 million of them are overseas. Impressive, but not quite correct.

I’m always more affected when I hear that one out of every 10 Filipinos lives and works abroad, but then some people will say, oh, I thought there were many more.

Statistics are tricky, and in a classroom or small-group lecture, you do have time to process with the listeners, but in a speech with a nation as an audience, the numbers, like television sound bites, have fleeting impact.

Spices and numbers

Having said all that about statistical overload, I wanted to bombard you with even more numbers because I feel that statistics can count (pun intended). I’m taking a chance here.  The first column I did, many years ago, with some statistics, I had readers, including my own parents, complaining that they didn’t like numbers, that it confused them.

Statistics are like spices in cooking. Too little and you have a bland dish, too much and they are overwhelming, sometimes making the dish no longer palatable.

For starters, how would the Sona sound if it were the State of the 100 Million Filipinos? That number—100 million—made the headlines in some newspapers, a nice round statistic that makes us No. 12 now in the world in terms of population.

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In the Philippines, thousands of people are born, and die, without ever being registered, so we will never know how many we really are. But demographers have ways of projecting the people count, and 100 million is meant to be a milestone, a time for us to think. The President could have used the number to challenge us: How do we take care of the needs of 100 million Filipinos?

The 100-million mark makes it easier for other statistics to follow. The President said: “The 27.9 percent poverty rate during the first semester of 2012 went down to 24.9 percent for the same period in 2013.”

That could have been: “The number of Filipinos living in poverty went down from 27.9 million in 2012, to 24.9 million in 2013.”

But then again, maybe that would not have been wise. Percentages numb, and ultimately obscure the millions of people who do live in poverty.

The numbers hit you more when you use the Social Weather Stations statistics on self-rated poverty (mahirap in Filipino), the latest figures strategically released right before the Sona so that one newspaper’s headline read: “Self-rated poverty up among households.” Its latest survey had 55 percent of respondents claiming to be poor, up from 53 percent in March. If we use the 100-million population mark, that’s 55 million Filipinos feeling they are poor.

Self-rated food poverty, meaning people feeling they did not have enough food to eat, also rose from 39 percent in March to 41 percent in June. Again, compare 41 percent to 41 million Filipinos.

Hard figures

Social scientists are divided on these figures.  There are those who will insist on “hard” statistics based on actual head counts, on “objective” criteria. And there are others who say it’s the subjective—people’s perceptions—that is important. The poor don’t care about the figures. They see poverty all around them, and the morsels of food that they feed their children.

I do see the need for “hard” data, if these can be linked to the “subjective” surveys. July is Nutrition Month, but we have heard too little about malnutrition in the country. Last year the Food and Nutrition Research Institute released preliminary figures from its latest National Nutrition Survey. I stared at one line in the press release: “The stunting (low height-for-age) prevalence among children age 0-5 years significantly decreased from 33.6 percent in 2011 to 30.3 percent in 2013.” Significantly decreased, I guess, is the good news. But we’re still talking about a third of our young children being stunted (bansot in Filipino), and that is a searing indictment of our social services.

I looked for other nutrition figures on the website. The results of the latest Operasyon Timbang—where the government weighs children—were listed by towns and provinces. I picked out the five towns with the highest underweight rates: Matuguinao, Samar (33.3 percent), Bumbaran, Lanao del Sur (29.3 percent), Linamon, Lanao del Norte (28 percent), Cataingan, Masbate, and Caramoran, Catanduanes (both 27.8 percent). These topnotchers—there are at least a dozen more with percentages of underweight children above 20 percent—should receive top priority for nutrition rehabilitation, and poverty alleviation.

It may seem difficult to imagine a town where one out of every three children are underweight, but you don’t have to go to Samar or Lanao del Sur to see that. Our urban poor communities in Metro Manila have similar rates, but the percentages of the underweight at barangay level disappear when you reach the town or city level.

Sonas need not be about achievements alone. Sonas should challenge us, too. It’s a bit like getting our kids to clean up their plates. We tell them, “Maraming nagugutom”—there are many hungry people out there—and they roll their eyes. Point out the hungry kids on the streets, or, better, take them to urban poor communities to see for themselves, and they might empathize. Maybe, too, we all need to follow the lead of Muslims, who, during the just-concluded Ramadan, did a voluntary fast during the day, combined with zakat or acts of charity.

Numbers are cerebral, but we can read them with our hearts, too, to better understand the state of 100 million Filipino lives.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: 100 Million Filipinos, Bumbaran, Caramoran, Cataingan, catanduanes, Disbursement Acceleration Program, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Linamon, Masbate, Matuguinao, Operasyon Timbang, Samar, Sona, Sona 2014, State of the Nation Address, Tesda, Training for Work Scholarship Program
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