Poor and feeling poor

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Squatters where the poor live along a river bank behind flashy skyscrapers in Makati | Photo SEANET

It is not so much whether there is a difference between being poor and feeling poor. What is important is that the difference matters little.

New terminologies have been introduced, like poor versus feeling poor. 48% identifying themselves as poor is not new. The self-rated poor surveys have long been reported by SWS. But Filipinos feeling they are Borderline Poor is the first I have read about from SWS. I am sure that this reality is not that new on the ground but their huge numbers today, 36%, justify the new category of poor – Borderline Poor.

So now we must contend with a population of Filipinos who consider themselves poor and borderline poor, an awesomely shocking 84% total.

Naturally, those claiming to be poor or feeling poor will necessarily have something in common. The proof of their self-ratings or feelings lies in food, the availability, reliability, and consistency of food on the table. For the feeling or borderline poor, the confidence of sustainable food on the table is now badly shaken.

If persons or families cannot afford to buy food occasionally or frequently, they are considered food-poor. There is now a new and bigger category called the Borderline Food-Poor.

“Why am I not shocked? Saddened, yes, deeply. But shocked, no. Saddened deeply that the Filipino spirit is battered, with material justification because hunger is becoming a consistent experience, …”

The same SWS survey had to introduce the term Borderline Food-Poor. In fact, it did not just appear, it made a grand entrance. From the 31% previously identified food-poor who experienced hunger incidences within the period surveyed, there is now the greater fear that is gripping an even greater number. 47% of Filipinos today feel they are borderline food-poor. I can only interpret that as people having no more assurance that there will be food on the table any time soon.

Why am I not shocked? Saddened, yes, deeply. But shocked, no. Saddened deeply that the Filipino spirit is battered, with material justification because hunger is becoming a consistent experience, and with substantial fear even before the fact for many who feel their finances cannot hold on for long.

Not shocked, though, because the emerging scenario of hunger and fear at extreme levels had been there for months, not stagnant but actively growing, not a snapshot of a survey but a live trajectory. Not shocked except for the strange silence from leadership, from all leaderships, when hunger and fear justified rage among us, justified radical measures to have food made available in volumes and frequencies that would stem both hunger and fear.

In July and September when hunger incidences had doubled and then tripled, it was glaringly clear that the combined efforts of government and the private sector as of that point could not counter the impact of the pandemic on hunger incidences. I do not know how else an alarm can be more clearly stated than the nationally-published quarterly SWS surveys – except maybe food riots. We who care should not be assuaged by the silence of the hungry lambs. We should not think they are not hungry because they do not march in the streets and loot stores and homes. They remain still quiet because they are poor Filipinos with a history of muted resignation. But they are hungry. Worse, they are afraid.

“From the beginning, I had believed that every Filipino citizen has a responsibility and accountability to the motherland. I had always considered that, as sons and daughters of our Inang Bayan, we each have a role to perform in the national family just as we each have an inheritance and legacy from our ancestors and motherland.

With deep regret, I made a seriously inaccurate assumption. I had thought that the majority of the 70% who were not reported in previous surveys as not hungry would be able to immediately respond, even at 25 pesos a meal to rescue one hungry person. I underestimated the fear that has gripped this same majority of the not hungry. The intervention to reverse the hunger situation is now decidedly more challenging for both government and the remaining 16% who believe that they are not poor or food challenged.

From the beginning, I had believed that every Filipino citizen has a responsibility and accountability to the motherland. I had always considered that, as sons and daughters of our Inang Bayan, we each have a role to perform in the national family just as we each have an inheritance and legacy from our ancestors and motherland. It has always been my hope that each of us can grow strong to do our share in building our nation.

I accept that the poor cannot be expected to do that although many of them try. First, from birth, their inheritance is poverty, not opportunity. It is up to us whose inheritance and opportunity have enabled us to rise to greater heights to reach out and handhold our young, our weak, our elderly, towards a state of productivity and security. There is no one else that would do that for them. No one else.

Before that sense of nation can ever emerge as a defining feature of the Filipino people, we begin from what we always took for granted, or avoided. We must build a sense of the other, that we are not only human beings but brother and sister Filipino, that we will not leave each other behind. We then must build our sense of community, graduate from regarding ourselves as family members to members of a community of families.

“Before that sense of nation can ever emerge as a defining feature of the Filipino people, we begin from what we always took for granted, or avoided. We must build a sense of the other, that we are not only human beings but brother and sister Filipino, that we will not leave each other behind.”

I cannot see progress where only 16% do not consider themselves poor or borderline poor. We must flip the pyramid as our first vision and deliberately build the social, economic, and educational infrastructures and processes. These are not big and complicated challenges. In truth, they are really and simply fundamental, as in how we regard one another, as in how we accept we belong to one motherland, as in how we can work together and help one another.

What is difficult is how to cross the social and political divides that fragmentize us and perpetuates the weakening of a nation. What is difficult is to elevate the common good above the individual and vested interests. What is difficult is to commit to unity and fraternity, which necessarily means laying aside our enmity towards one another and build our amity. For all our sakes, and for our young, may we do so.

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