How much poverty can a nation take?

How much poverty can a nation take before it starts to disintegrate? The latest Social Weather Stations survey reports that 51% of the people they asked rated themselves poor, and that almost 3 million Filipino households experienced hunger in the last three months. In themselves, surveys about poverty have no intrinsic meaning. Individuals have different thresholds of pain.  And responses to hunger can vary from pious acceptance to revolutionary resistance. Every society has its own safety-valve mechanisms.

But hunger is first of all a problem for the modern nation-state.  If the state cannot guarantee to its citizens the minimum conditions for a decent life, it will soon lose its reason for being.

All around us are telltale signs that the nation’s disintegration may have actually begun.  More than 8 million adult Filipinos now live and work abroad, many of them preferring to stay permanently where they are.  They faithfully send money to the loved ones they have left behind.  But how many of them are happy about paying taxes to the Philippine government?

To almost every human need we can think of today, the state response has been to privatize fulfillment – i.e., to make need satisfaction entirely dependent on the individual’s capacity to pay. Schooling, health care, housing, water, mass transportation, electricity, leisure, communication, and even personal security – name it, it is private enterprise that is there to answer the need.  If this is what the future is like, then it is not farfetched to imagine the eventual withering of the state – paving the way for the privatization of law-making and the outsourcing of governance itself.

A state cannot leave its citizens to fend for themselves without facing the long-term consequences of its own neglect.  Without a future to look forward to at home, they will, at the first opportunity, pack up and leave – as millions of Filipinos have done in the last three decades, and still do, by the thousands every day.

Those who are too poor to pay their passage out of the country will pitch their tattered tents on pavements or build their hovels on public and private land. They will illicitly tap into any water or electricity source, snatch cell phones, and steal from their equally impoverished neighbors. They will work as runners for drug and criminal syndicates.  They will send their children out into the busy streets of the metropolis to beg.  They will peer into trash cans in search of leftover food, or recyclable metal, and plastic.  They will cut existing power lines for the aluminum wire, steal the copper casing of water meters and fire hydrants, and remove the metal covers of manholes. And when they have run out of things to sell to the junkshop, they will retail their blood and their kidneys, or rent out their whole bodies. They will even sell their young offspring.  All these are already happening today.

The ideal of a modern republican state in which citizens stand equally before the law has long been exposed to be a gigantic lie.  The deep inequalities created by a vicious property system cancel all the romantic visions of a nation of equal citizens enjoying the blessings of a just social order.  It is no wonder that people are turning to the tightly-knit communities of faith for the support they cannot find in the nation-state.  Not many churches or mosques however have this kind of capacity.  In many societies, it is the warlords who step up to fill the space vacated by the failed state.

The symptoms of a failing state are so commonplace that we will seldom see their significance.  Our first instinct is to react to the threat they pose by resorting to private solutions — costly adaptations with limited social value.  That is how, over the years, this society has quietly assembled possibly the world’s largest army of private security guards.  For we’ve long stopped turning to the police for protection. Residential subdivisions and condos, private schools, universities, office buildings, banks, shopping malls, and restaurants — big and small – now retain their own platoon of security personnel. The number of private security guards in the country today easily dwarfs the combined personnel of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police.

The problem of poverty and the coping mechanisms it generates are systemic in nature.  We will not overcome them by fencing off our neighbors, or hiring bodyguards to secure our children and our homes.  Even acts of charity provide only short-term relief.  What people need are regular jobs and steady livelihood that will enable them to provide for their families.  They need land on which they can build their homes and where they won’t be constantly under threat of eviction.  They need good schools for their children.  They need to be able to look to a future that is kinder.

Each day we respond to the problems spawned by poverty as if they were merely private troubles, we forego the chance to question the rules on which our dysfunctional way of life has been built.  Instead of nurturing a stable nation, we breed a resentful people fragmented by the conventions of social exclusion.

Our political leaders continue to sleepwalk through this troubled landscape, lost in their fantasies about the wondrous effects of Charter change. They are programmed not to think beyond elections, and so they will never see the storm before them.


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