Sinking deeper in poverty

Almost exactly a year ago today (Nov. 3, 2011), I wrote about a young couple who had requested to live and do subsistence farming in a 1.5-hectare plot of marginal land on the slopes of Mt. Malasimbo in Bataan that I had planted to mangoes and coconuts (“Mired in poverty,” Inquirer, 11/11/10). Both in their mid-30s, Rosalie and Dodoy had four children.  Their eldest, a boy, was 14 and in third year high school, and the youngest, another boy, was about two years old. In between were two girls who were in grade school. At the time I wrote about them, Dodoy had not been sending money from Manila, where he moved and worked irregularly as an extra tricycle driver.

Rosalie heard that, in fact, Dodoy had taken up with another woman.  After confirming this, she went to the local barangay to complain. She came to me later to ask if she and her children could continue to live in my farm—a request that I found strange because I thought she was not the kind of woman who would draw her status as a person from her husband’s authority. Without hesitation, I said yes, assuring her also that I would continue to give the one-thousand-peso monthly allowance I had pledged for their children’s school needs. I, however, inquired how she planned to support her young family by herself. She said she would manage by selling vegetables in the town market. I was skeptical about this brave woman’s resolve, but I wished her all the luck in the world and told her not to hesitate to ask for help.

Knowing how much she cared about her children’s education, I remember advising her to enlist in the government’s Conditional Cash Transfer Program, for which she and her children were clearly qualified. She said she had inquired about it and had been told to wait for the new enlistment that was to take place in December last year. I never found out if she actually got on the expanded CCTP list of the Aquino administration.

Early this year, Rosalie told me she had decided to leave the small hut atop the hill that had been their home for more than five years. She said that without a husband she didn’t feel safe living there with her young children. She informed me that, in the presence of the barangay captain, she and Dodoy had agreed to officially part ways. After sending the two older children to her estranged husband’s family, she moved to another barrio with her two younger kids.

The eldest son, now 15, who had given her the strongest hope for a better life, eventually dropped out of school after failing to take the final exams for the third year high school. Today he works off and on as a day laborer in a poultry farm, with neither functional skills nor ambition to see him through his mature years. Rosalie herself has found another man in the barrio in which she sought shelter and is now pregnant with his child. Dodoy, who has come back from his fruitless search for work in Manila, still does odd jobs at construction sites. He also has another child by his new partner.

If this were only the story of one family that, because of the personal inadequacies of the parents, has found itself mired in poverty, there is little reason to take up its problems at the level of public discourse. My hunch, however, is that its circumstances are typical and familiar to many. A whole generation of Filipinos, equipped with little education and no usable skills other than the most basic, have entered parenthood. Uprooted from their elders’ farming communities, they live marginal lives as migrants in towns and cities whose opportunity structure offers them no place. As expected, they don’t earn enough to keep body and soul together.

Because of constant money problems, relations between spouses are strained beyond what is bearable. But it is their young offspring who absorb the greatest costs of material deprivation. The children don’t get enough nourishment for their young bodies. Domestic conflict and abuse take their toll on their emotional development. In their despair, they lose their taste for school, and dream of ways to get out of parental control as soon as they can. Before long, they drop out of school to find work or, worse, to set up their own families even before they can provide for their own personal needs.

In her heart of hearts, Rosalie knew that only the education of her children could help them break out of this inter-generational cycle of poverty in which they were trapped. She held out the highest hope that if her eldest son could finish high school and move on to complete a vocational course, the rest of her children would have someone to support them, and, as importantly, to emulate. Unfortunately, her resoluteness caved in when her husband went astray. Dodoy was aware of his wife’s aspiration for the children, but he felt powerless to do anything to make it a reality. He went to Manila, I suspect, not just to find a job, but to escape from the painful reality of seeing his kids slowly starve.

Ultimately, it is the breakup of the family—due usually to paternal abandonment—that seals the fate of the children. That need not be the case. In mature societies, the state does everything to neutralize the effects of a family’s poverty or, indeed, of the parents’ marital break on the development of a child. The child’s interests are considered paramount, and the state does not hesitate to intervene at any level to

ensure they are protected and served.

We have a long way to go before we can become such a society. The inequalities in our midst are just too stark and unchanging, and the nation’s leaders are just too preoccupied with serving the interests of the rich to bother with the fate of young people who mostly come from the poor.