The Continuing Shame Of Our Nation

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Poverty in the Philippines cannot be effectively and substantially resolved. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot raise at least 5 million Filipino families out of poverty, not for as long as they do not change the way they look at the poor.

The poor are not the problem, we are. The poor are the victims, not the cause, of poverty. If government wants to effectively and substantially address the cancer we call poverty, then government has to look at itself as the primary culprit. After it, the next culprit is the Church and the elite that have long been in bed with government.

It may be that there is less malice among the culprits than a historical amnesia, and greed, of course. Government shamefully forgets our very history, especially the fact that we were never an impoverished people until we were conquered, abused and exploited by our colonizers. Because poverty was not a natural state of the natives of our islands until we were baptized “Filipinos” by Spain, there is an easy way to trace our poverty.

For one thing, and I hate to disappoint some Filipino bashers, it is not because Filipinos are lazy. If we were, our poverty would be closer to 90 percent than 30-50 percent. After all, we used to be 90 percent poor, if not more. But because Filipinos are not lazy and because Filipinos are resourceful, determined and ambitious, almost half of the once-poor have pulled themselves up  by their bootstraps. Take a bow, my people, you did it by yourselves despite government, despite the elite and despite global competition.

It was not so long ago, in the 90′s, when the economic demographics divided Filipinos as follows:

Classes A & B – 1%

Class C             – 9%

Class D             – 55%

Class E             – 35%

Today, we are told that poverty is down to about 28 percent. I think it is measured largely by food threshold and other life necessities called poverty threshold. All I know it that 28 percent is too low, way too low, both in the number and in the shallowness of how we empathize with the suffering of the poor.

Let me concede 28 percent as the estimate of the poorest of the poor, but let me double it for my estimate, and the people’s own estimate, of who is poor in the Philippines. When asked to rate themselves, Filipinos from the high 40 to 60 percent claim they are poor. That’s poverty. With 28 percent and below, that’s shameful, that’s criminal.

From the upper portion of Class D has been born the new class of Filipinos—the OFWs. From the pain of separation has emerged tens of millions, estimated conservatively at 30 million, who have heroically defied historical odds, governments and the elite who rule and climbed out of their inherited pit. They have gone through their revolution, paid and still pay the price, just to break a pattern of misery imposed on them by those who had power and advantage. By their sacrifice, they are the greatest builders of the nation.

If our leaders from the State, the Church and Big Business really want to learn how to defeat poverty, they have a good model to study in the OFW phenomenon. Though they did not start from the poorest of the poor, many were poor enough, desperate enough, to grasp at employment even as domestic helpers. They have gone through indignity after indignity at the hands of insensitive masters of all races, but they keep doing so and many more here would prefer that to what they have, what they face, in their own motherland. This is the first lesson, that our poor live in so degrading a life and so hopeless a future that they would rather risk indignities abroad to have a stab at a brighter tomorrow for their families.

The second lesson is to imagine what kind of indignity the poorest of the poor swallow day by day, lifetime after lifetime. If those who are better off than them in the poverty chain feel desperate enough to accept humiliation from foreign masters to build an opportunity for a better future for the families they have left behind, what kind of misery defines the existence of the so called 28 percent poorest of the poor? This is lesson # 2, that the poorest of the poor, despite their misery, have not opted for a bloody revolution because they have let go even of desperation. They have chosen resignation, they prefer to live a life without hope, they adjust to being more animal than man; they simply try to survive.

On the brighter side, from the billions of dollars that OFWs remit to their families, on what do they spend on over and above the luxuries they always dreamed on but could never afford? In terms of priorities, OFWs try to buy a house. They buy as much as they can, but they try to buy a house, all of them, except those who had small houses that now have become two floors made of cement and hollow blocks—bahay na bato.

To those who are appointed by the State, by the Church, and by Big Business, this is lesson # 3. Look at the house, or the attempt to buy or build a house. It is not just a house, it is not just shelter. Look deeply at what the house represents and learn the greatest lesson.

It is about security. It is about land. It is about a sacred spot in this planet and in their motherland that they can call their own. Here, they are safe. Here, it is home.

If we can learn the three lessons, we might remember what happened, why we lost our sacred spots and the security that is patrimony of all humanity. Only when we remember can we erase the shame of our nation.

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