Editorial: The face of the poor

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

DO YOU see the poor around you?

This question has boggled people for the ages. More than a rhetorical question or a spiritual conundrum, the question is a challenge for governance.

By this May, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) 7 will be surveying households in Central Visayas to fill in crucial blanks with important implications for the country’s poverty-reduction goals and resources.


Last April 15, Sun.Star Cebu’s Linette R. Cantalejo reported that the DSWD 7 will survey one million households in the region.

The National Household Targeting System for Poverty Reduction, also known as the “Listahan (List),” will identify which families are considered as poor or near poor and qualify as beneficiaries of social protection programs and services.

Objective vs. political

The same Sun.Star Cebu report noted that the Listahan survey will use 52 variables, which are “observable” and “verifiable,” for assessing poverty.

The variables include not just a family’s income but also access to basic services.

Household information will be scientifically analyzed. Families whose income is equal to or less than the poverty threshold of the province are classified as poor.

The DSWD 7 faces several challenges to come up with a Listahan that is scientifically and politically sound.

The enumerators must be well-trained to assess a million families according to 52 variables. Filling up a family assessment form that requires accurate data on 52 variables will test not just research capabilities but also an enumerator’s sense of civic duty.

Some of those contracted to conduct data-gathering for publicly funded surveys resort to short cuts, such as failing to get all data in a standardized questionnaire or asking a cooperative respondent to furnish data about his or her neighbors to save the researcher the time and effort to approach primary sources.

If the Listahan research parameters are strictly observed and scientifically validated, the data are invaluable for steering the government’s anti-poverty programs.

Good fight

The DSWD 7’s next challenge then is to convince local government units, politicians, nongovernment organizations and other development catalysts to use the Listahan data in determining who should be prioritized for assistance.

Despite the considerable expense of the government in conducting surveys like the Listahan, the identification of the poor is dictated by less objective but more entrenched parameters, such as politics and greed.

The poor may not always be the households living below the poverty threshold or denied access to basic services. In the controversies surrounding the distribution of aid to disaster victims, poverty amelioration is frequently rooted in patronage politics.

The poor are those who voted for a politician during the last election; lead communities or “wards” that can be relied on to sell their votes to patrons; or reside in barangays where the incumbent leaders belong to the political party of their

Those with sufficient resources can even become the “faux poor” and be first in line for government assistance if they happen to be related by blood, marriage or political ties to patrons.

An invaluable lesson from the pork barrel scam is that the poor do not even have to exist; they can be the deceased, figments of imagination or the unwary, conjured up for siphoning public funds.

Given how lists tallying the poor can be vulnerable to error or abuse, there is a deeper argument questioning the effectiveness of welfare programs that dole out aid to the poor. Welfare or dole-out programs develop dependence and stifle the incentive to work.

Some argue that welfare should only be resorted to during emergencies, such as a finite period after disaster. Sustaining welfare programs require large infusions of resources that drain governments. Less wasteful are programs stimulating education and creating jobs.

In the long term, feeding the poor, compared to teaching them how to feed themselves, is keeping alive the culture of poverty that does not just ensure the poor will always be among us but also that they will always be around to be exploited by others.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on April 21, 2014.


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