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Who are the Poor in the “Year of the Poor”?

By: Fr. Jerome R. Secillano, MPA

To the organizers of this “Year of The Poor”, this question is perhaps a no-brainer. In fact, when I joined the brainstorming for this event, those who attended easily rattled off the groups that are deemed to be poor. They are the farmers, fishermen, drivers, security guards, vendors, the indigenous people, the unemployed, those in slums, the physically handicapped, and even those imprisoned. While some may disagree on this listing, we Filipinos have long had the impression that these groups are indeed what constitute the poor in our society. There are other clusters, of course, which are not mentioned but they can easily be identified as such like the scavengers, alms-seekers and the homeless, who make the streets their official abode.

It may, in fact, be quite easy to identify the poor but if you ask others, some professionals included, they will tell you that they are also poor. Ask a teacher, who lives on meager income or a policeman, who subsists on deficient wage, don’t be surprised if they tell you that they, too, are poor. Let us not argue on whether “being poor” is either an objective or subjective thing.  Let’s rather agree that there are categories or approaches that may perhaps help us determine who the poor are.

In a Working Paper authored by Caterina Laderchi, Ruhi Saith and Frances Stewart, they asked, “Does it matter that we don’t agree on the definition of poverty?” While the intent of the paper is to guide policymakers on what to do best against poverty by firstly determining the common definitions for it, methinks that the four approaches espoused by the authors will help us in our own determination of who are poor. Well, the paper, in fact, mentioned that “these approaches point to different people as being poor, for targeting”. It went on to identify the approaches as monetary, capability, social exclusion and participatory.

The Monetary approach is the most commonly used in identifying and measuring poverty. It is a shortfall in consumption (or income) from some poverty line. The World Bank has pegged the international poverty line at $1.25/day in 2005. In the Philippines, based on the National Statistics Coordination Board report, the poverty line marks a per capita income of 16,841 pesos a year. Those who fell below these figures are then considered to be poor.

The Capability approach is seen as the expansion of human capabilities and not the maximization of utility or income (money). Here poverty is defined as deprivation or the failure to achieve certain minimal or basic capabilities, where “basic capabilities” are “the ability to satisfy certain crucially important functioning up to certain minimally adequate level”. Examples are the handicapped or those living in areas where even the most basic services are not provided. How can they advance further if they are physically constrained or deprived of opportunities to even make the first step towards development?

The Social Exclusion approach is defined by the European Union as a “process through which individuals or groups are wholly or partially excluded from full participation in the society in which they live”. It occurs when, as a resident of a society, a person is excluded for reasons beyond his/her control to participate in normal activities even if he would like to do so. Examples are the aged and those belonging to some racial or ethnic groups. The country, at least, has begun to recognize these sectors and has given them rights based on some policy initiatives like the senior citizens’ law and The Indigenous Peoples' Rights Act of 1997. Much still is desired though.

The Participatory approach is something different from the conventional means of determining poverty. While others seem to be external impositions of institutions tasked to assess poverty situations, this approach takes into account people’s perception of what it means to be poor and the magnitude of poverty. This practice of participatory poverty assessments (PPA) enable people to share, enhance and analyze their knowledge of life and conditions, to plan and to act.

You will notice that those named as poor by the organizers of this “Year of the Poor” can be categorized more or less according to the approaches explained above. What is more interesting, however, are the possible implications presented by the fourth approach. Many are actually crying out to be poor! Were they heard? Were their voices considered? Also, this “Year of the Poor” seems to be about those who are financially, economically or materially poor, those that are socially excluded or those that are deprived of basic opportunities for life. Whatever happens to those who are “poor in spirit”? Are they also included in this “Year of the Poor? Determining the poor may prove to be a difficult task after all

(The author is the parish priest of Nstra. Sra. Del Perpetuo Socorro Parish, Sampaloc, Manila. He earned his Masteral Degree in Public Administration at the University of the Philippines-NCPAG, Diliman.)