The forgotten war on poverty
THE WAR on poverty now appears to be a forgotten war. We have been waging war against it, but the problem is that numbers do not lie. In fact, one does not have to look for government statistics. One only needs to do a short walk around the city in order to find the ubiquitous presence of impoverished children. The harrowing tragedy that is human poverty does not only diminish the value of life; it also bespeaks the unequivocal reality of systemic abuse in which human beings are ultimately exploited and reduced to powerless artifacts.
But has the war on poverty been abandoned? Good numbers regarding the growth of our gross domestic product can be very ambiguous for the poor. The right thing to do, it has been told countless times, is to introduce people to equitable arrangements which will provide them with secure jobs and open opportunities, all of which will ultimately unshackle them from the pangs of hunger and ignorance. People do not merely need jobs: They need secure jobs with decent pay. People do not just need to send their children to school: Government authorities must ensure that the children are not shortchanged given the decrepit state of many public schools.
At the outset, it can be argued by critics that it is more prudent to use our obviously scarce national funds for the construction of schools, hospitals, roads and airports than spend the same on the poorest households by means of government doles. The argument against the trickle-down approach is built upon the standard idea in development theory that income is not equal to “well-being achievement.” The well-being of an individual does not depend on the amount of money one has in one’s pocket. It depends, according to Amartya Sen, on what people are actually “able to do and become.”
Development, thus, does not only concern having money. Money can never be enough. It is also about having the voice in terms of law and policy by virtue of transparent channels of public consultations meant to pay equal respect to the rights of citizens to be heard as stakeholders on issues concerning their welfare. Political freedom, in this regard, is as important as economic freedom. The poor do not have the weapon to counter the evil that is social inequity. Only the government has the power to do so. In dividing the pie, the person who holds the knife should be last to take his or her share. Our problem, however, is that those in privileged positions do not even want to give the poor the chance to take their rightful share.
The spirit of democracy calls upon the institutions of the government to uphold the dignity of the poor. We need to address the problem of poverty. But who is our real enemy? Clapping in jail all corrupt officials will not result in zero corruption. It can also mean that a new breed of cunning and corrupt leaders is actually rising to power to take the place of the old guard. As such, the problem is structural. Oppression is a result of unfair policies. The failure of any government to liberate the poor from their predicament, thus, is a matter of policy failure. Deprivation, in this sense, is a burden borne by marginalized people because those in the government are not doing their job.
The fight against corruption, while fundamentally important, has not truly achieved sufficient results in terms of felt impact in the well-being of the poor. Influence-peddlers and those with vested interests still occupy high positions in public office. They can hire the best lawyers, pay judges, and delay the delivery of justice on technical grounds. But the real problem here is not of intent or motivation. The bigger problem has been the lack of political will in our former leaders that has allowed dishonorable and corrupt public officials to carry on with their nefarious ways with impunity.
The undeniable fact, still, is that the oligarchic nature of the Philippine economy controls and takes advantage of the people by manipulating the whole system. Equal justice for all should be the core principle of any government. The majority should not be held hostage in the name of an economic progress that benefits only the ruling few. A dignified life for all Filipinos means the recognition of their basic rights and entitlements, all of which must be translated into effective and sustainable programs.
But poverty is not just a political issue. It is also a moral one. It is a moral issue because it essentially concerns the dignity of the poor as human beings. Poverty is a scandal in any and every democracy. The presence of homeless families in our streets means that the government has failed in its moral duty of improving the quality of life of its people. When most of us find joy in superficial things while our fellow men and women and their children are dying from hunger and disease, then it means that we have not really deepened our reflections on the meaning of life as a whole.
Christopher Ryan Maboloc teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University. He has a master’s degree in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden.
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