On making both ends meet

By Herbert Vego

OUR human resources – the skilled and unskilled laborers who toil for a living – are the cogs of the wheel that sustains the country’s economy.

The average working man, ironically, does not earn enough income to feed, clothe and shelter his family sufficiently.  This has become obvious, judging from the increasing number of pawnshops and online advertisements offering low-interest loans which could bury the debtor in deeper debt.

“Alarming” could be the least alarming word to describe the inability of low-income Filipinos to make ends meet. They are denied such financial stability that would enable them to rise above the “isang kahig, isang tuka” status. which is essential to their survival.

With rice now priced at ₱55 to ₱60 per kilo, they are forced to eat a half cup of it instead of one cup per meal.

You must have seen that TV documentary about a big but indigent family — a male street sweeper, his housewife and their 11 children – whose daily “ambition” is to rise above hunger.

It is mind-boggling that, according to the Asian Development Bank, 18.1% of our population live below the national poverty line, thus unable to buy their wants and needs. If that sounds exaggerated, please see for yourselves the long line of senior citizens seeking free consultation and medicine in government hospitals and clinics.

For example, an indigent pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) patient would die without taking free medicine – a tablet a day for six months.

While the Philippines ranks 12th as the most populous country in the world – now exceeding 118 million – we are among the smallest in an archipelago with a land area of 115,830 square miles.

On July 10, 2023, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported that while Filipinos earn an average of ₱25,000 a month, thus looking good, it constitutes the “median” income of the rich and the poor. The basic but largely unfollowed minimum wage is only ₱17,100 per month. If wealth were equally distributed, we would not have that inadequacy. But since 90 percent of the country’s wealth is said to be in the hands of only 10 percent of the population, the poorest of the poor do not eat three square meals a day.

In contrast is Denmark, where poverty is unknown among its 5,910,913 residents (2021 census). The average household there earns an annual income of US $49,000 or around ₱2.7 million in Philippine pesos. This seems to suggest that the smaller the population, the better its chances to grow.

We are therefore wrong in believing that the more babies we make, the more we contribute to productivity. This notion is prevalent among rice farmers who expect their children to take over farm work.

Alas, reality bites. In fact, an ideal family must only beget as many children as it can feed, clothe and send to college. Failure to do so would condemn future generations to a vicious cycle of poverty.

No wonder, we have to “export” labor due to lack of opportunities within the country. There are now more than 12 million Filipinos living abroad. Of this number, two million are classified as overseas Filipino workers (OFW).

While in New Zealand as a tourist, I met newly arrived Filipino nurses who earn $3,900 monthly in that country’s currency (NZD), which is equivalent to ₱139,000.

In contrast, those who work in our hospitals suffer “starvation wages” in the hope of gaining experience that would qualify them for employment abroad. There simply are not enough local opportunities for our professionals to experience financial freedom.

The government has sponsored seminars aimed at boosting entrepreneurship as an option to solve the unemployment or underemployment problems. Considering the usual red tape and expenses involved in going into business, however, it’s easier said than done.

Let me borrow the words of a Filipino intellectual:

“All the Filipinos, as well as those who have tried to engage in business in the Philippines, know how many documents, what errands, how many stamped papers, how many ordeals of patience are needed to secure from the government business permit for an enterprise. A person must count upon the goodwill of this official, on the influence of that one, on a good bribe to another, in order that the application may not be pigeonholed, a present to the one further on so that he may pass the matter on to his chief?”

If you think that the quotation comes from a present-day observer of Philippine bureaucracy, you are wrong. It dates back to the Spanish colonial era with no less than Dr. Jose Rizal writing on “The Indolence of the Filipinos.”

Why do we allow history to repeat itself when we are capable of self-realization?

To quote a Bible verse (Proverbs 6:6-8), “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise; which, having no guide, oversee or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer and gathereth her food in the harvest.”