A culture of poverty?
While doing field research in the country’s poorest areas, my team came across a community where some residents, when asked why there were so many poor people in their area, matter-of-factly said it’s because many of their neighbors are lazy. We also interviewed the project staff of a national government poverty reduction program; when asked why there were so many poor people in their province, their response was, again, because many of them are lazy. Regional heads of national government agencies that we gathered in a focus group discussion chorused that the reason there are many poor people in their region is that most of them are—you guessed it—lazy.
Poor people who are seen to be devoid of aspirations and initiative, and thereby unable to extricate themselves out of poverty, have come to be described as having a “culture of poverty.” American anthropologist Oscar Lewis, to whom the phrase was first attributed, argued that the poor possess a culture of poverty that transcends generations as well as national boundaries. In research that documented the lives of slum dwellers, he contended that cultural similarities occur among the poor in different places, and they are “common adaptations to common problems.” 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.”
Are the Filipino poor afflicted with a culture of poverty? The notion manifests itself in several corollary assertions. One argues that the poor will inevitably subvert any intervention to improve their welfare. Similar to this is the argument that the poor are resistant to any change for the better, often made with reference to small farmers. Another holds that biological, cognitive, psychological, cultural and even racial factors lie behind the inability of the poor to liberate themselves from poverty.
With such notions seemingly permeating different levels of society, it’s hard to expect interventions toward poverty reduction to gain much ground, as the belief could get in the way of their effective design and implementation. In particular, it leads one to the tempting conclusion that most poverty-reduction initiatives cannot have any lasting impact, as it’s impossible to help those who will not help themselves. At worst, the notion manifests itself in the sentiment that the poor ultimately deserve their fate.
Well over a century ago, Dr. Jose Rizal wrote “On the Indolence of the Filipino.” Much of the circumstances he observed then on the controversial notion remain applicable today to the similarly contested “culture of poverty” among the Filipino poor. While he recognized that indolence indeed existed among Filipinos, he did not see this to be an inherent flaw of the country and its people, but rather, as the effect of circumstances experienced by the country, including the hot climate. It’s for this reason that the Spaniard is more indolent than the Frenchman, who in turn is more so than the German—an observation he seemed to take as empirical fact. But beyond climate, Rizal also saw man-made “social disorders” to be the culprit. These included abuse and discrimination, government inaction, rampant corruption and red tape, misplaced Church doctrines, and bad examples from some Spaniards who led lives of indolence—all ultimately leading to the deterioration of Filipino values.
All sound familiar? With minor tweaking, the above could just as accurately describe the plight of today’s “lazy” Filipino poor, whose lack of motivation could be traced to any or all of the above. A foreign colleague once told me of his conversation with the little son of his hired driver. When he asked the boy what he wanted to be when he grows up, the child replied that he wanted to be a driver just like his father. My colleague found it amazing that the child would not aspire for more, and went on to surmise that this could be a reason poverty remains prevalent in the Philippines.
A tempting inference, perhaps, but Marian Pastor-Roces, herself a culture studies expert, argues that when premised on the existence of such culture of poverty, government initiatives for poverty reduction are likely to be misguided. For example, it underlies, consciously or unconsciously, the tendency for overly centralized decision-making in government, or recurrent temptations to recentralize already decentralized functions. One also sees it in national and local government officials’ all-too-common distrust of civil society organizations that are otherwise eager to help uplift the lives of the poor. It leads to a tendency to put little regard for, if not totally ignore, historical and sociocultural factors in addressing rural poverty from the national and regional perspectives. (Poverty in rural Mindanao, for example, requires very different approaches from poverty in Northern Luzon, for obvious reasons.) There is also a tendency to overlook, if not dismiss, the potential value of local knowledge and traditional problem-solving approaches in the design of antipoverty programs and projects. Getting poverty reduction right, it seems, would start with overcoming this notion that a culture of poverty stands in the way.
Rizal, in the end, summed up the main causes of Filipino indolence: the limited training and education Filipinos received, and the lack of national sentiment and unity among them. To him, education was key to “curing” Filipino indolence. He could have just as well said it today, in prescribing a cure for modern-day Filipino poverty.
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