Understanding poverty

The American sociologist C. Wright Mills offers a useful distinction between “personal troubles” and “public issues.”

“When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed,” Mills says, “that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities.  But when in a nation of 50 million, 15 million are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual.  The very structure of opportunities has collapsed.”

Poverty in the Philippines is the result of such a collapse in the very structure of opportunities.  With nearly half of our entire population living in absolute poverty, we can be sure that this situation is not a product of the personal character of the poor.  Any attempt to understand it must focus on the failings of the entire social order, rather than on the personal inadequacies of individual Filipino families.  Any attempt to solve it in an enduring way would have to involve an overhaul of our basic political and economic institutions.

We are dealing with two realities here: first, the reality of economic underdevelopment, and second, the reality of inequality.  The poverty of our people is the product of both.  The amount of wealth that our economy produces is small to begin with. This is the result of the underdevelopment of our productive capacities.  The productivity of our labor and the level of sophistication of our technology are very low compared to those of our East Asian neighbors.

On top of this, what wealth we produce is unequally distributed.  The rich capture most of it, while the poor get poorer, or are completely excluded from the mainstream production process itself and from the market. Their dwindling share of the nation’s product prevents them from transforming themselves into more productive members of society.

The political system gives the poor their political rights and freedoms, but their economic vulnerability prevents them from meaningfully using these rights.  What happens then is that they use these rights mainly to secure short-term economic benefits, rather than to shape basic economic policy.

In the 1950s, we were second only to Japan in terms of capacity for economic growth.  Today we are nearly at the bottom of the heap in Southeast Asia.  How did we come to this?  I think that our special relationship with the United States, in exchange for hosting the American bases, kept us from exploring the full range of options available to nations that were just emerging from their colonial past. The preferential arrangement in the US market for Philippine sugar, for example, shielded the favored Filipino planters from the urgency of competition and modernization.  Pegging the peso’s value against the American dollar likewise gave us the illusion of prosperity.  It made it easier to import than to produce the things we needed.

In short, the urge to rebuild economies and raise productivity in order to compete in the world market, which was very strong in East Asia, was hardly felt by our policy makers.  Their reliance on American patronage worked like a curse upon our economic and political life. By the time we realized that being a client state of America had made us into a weak nation, it was quite late.  A new world economy had opened up, and we were incapable of seizing the opportunities it was offering.

We had not paid attention to upgrading agriculture, nor to building the basic infrastructure of a modern industrial economy.  We allowed our public educational system to deteriorate, leaving the task of educating a new generation to the vagaries of private institutions.  Marcos came on the scene in the mid-1960s and his theory was that we had lagged behind because we lacked political will.  He saw Park Chung Hee’s South Korea as a model for rapid growth and, on the basis of this belief, he inaugurated an era of developmental authoritarianism.

Problems of governance shadowed Marcos’s efforts at economic development.  The world economy entered a period of recession, and he could not repay the foreign loans he had borrowed and misused.

His modernization project collapsed because it had become politically untenable.  Still, we must credit him for what he tried to do for Philippine agriculture and for the physical infrastructure that he built.

Our experience with Marcos however made us skeptical about modernization, and paranoid about our democratic rights and freedoms.  In the post-Marcos years, we became blind to the requirements of rapid and sustained economic growth.  The series of coup attempts against Cory Aquino frightened investors and distracted us from our economic concerns.  Our economy froze on its tracks while the population galloped.  Income gaps widened, and the government became incapable of providing the poor the basic services they needed so they might live productive lives.

Today the delicate social balance that the elite defended fiercely from the time of independence is falling apart.  The poor refuse to continue shouldering the burdens of a stunted economy.   This refusal is increasingly being expressed in political terms.  Some smart politicians are tapping into the poor’s disenchantment to boost their political ambitions.  But properly harnessed, the politicization of the poor can produce lasting social change and economic growth.

The key is to redress historic inequalities by re-directing resources toward meeting basic needs, and to rebuild social trust by reestablishing our society’s structure of opportunities.


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