Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My two cents on being poor

I had an interesting conversation last night with friends Mara and Zhorai regarding illegal settlers. Both were born and raised in Manila but have distant relations in the province and I, the barrio girl. The discussion stem from recent social events that spurred commentaries on how urban illegal settlers should be treated. Of course, there are two opposing sides. 

My two cents on being poor. 

In this country, there are two types of poor citizens: the rural poor and the urban poor. The urban poor has a sub-type I call, the professional urban poor. 

Let me tell you a short story. I grew up poor. Rural poor. So I know what being poor means. My father is a salaried man who worked for one of the banana plantations in our province. We are the banana capital of the Philippines. 

Having said that, there are two things that are guaranteed in our life. As long as the banana leaves are green, my father has a job and there would be food on the table. We never found ourselves hungry, unclothed or uneducated because all of our basic needs can be had through the company my father and the rest of the hundreds of employees in the barrio work for. 

We had access to medical care, the simple ones are treated at the company dispensary. Consultation with the company physician is free, medicine dispensation is subsidized. Pharma samples were always handed out to patients who need them. Our medical history is neatly stacked in our folders in the clinic's filing cabinet. It only stops once you reach your 21st birthday -- dependent, no more. For hospitalization, we had access to the largest hospital in the city. We even have our private ambulance for emergencies. 

I've witnessed many families in the wee hours of the night call for ambulance while the neighbors crowd and willingly offer a helping hand. Everyone gets an access to it fast. Admittance is a cinch; just present your company ID. Letter of Authority to follow.  Discharge at the hospital regardless of the hospital bill is easy. The employee (either the husband or the wife) just signs the papers at the billing section. 

For a long good while, I naively thought that hospitalization is free. But when my parents incurred a hefty bill for my youngest brother's hospitalization I then learned that yes, we get discharged without paying the hospital but only because the company my father works for, guarantees it. But a great portion of that bill in amortized amount is deducted from his salary. 

Grocery, fresh produce, school supplies and even hardware supplies are available at a huge bodega where we just submit the list of things we need, signed by our parents and voila we go home with bags of goodies. For a while there, I thought we get them for free. Ha ha. I found out these too were deducted from my father's pay. 

With all the expenses we incur, it's no wonder my father's take home pay is just enough to pay for electricity, kids' allowances and other needs. No more extra cash for vacation or even trips to the city. 

Our barrio has a large public elementary school. Almost everyone's kids studied there including us. We had good teachers, nice classrooms outfitted with comfort rooms. No one did classes under the shade of a tree. We had a huge play ground with majestic acacia trees surrounding it. This frees all the parents the worry that comes from paying tuition. 

The big public high school is located outside the barrio. In fact the town is about 15 minutes away. So the company provides us a school bus. Not the cute ones that I see ferrying kids here in the metro. It's a huge bus that can load about a hundred kids to school. And we ride for free. Again, this frees our parents precious cash to dispense with. 

And yet, even with all these provisions the family income is just always enough. Sometimes less. You know why? The wages in the province is way below the income of those in the cities. 

But my family and those of my entire barrio never gave up. They just continue to work harder, tended gardens and saved for the children's college education. Because college is no longer free. And company scholarship is scarce considering the thousands of employees' kids vying for a slot.

It's the sort of picture growing up rural poor paints. 

Fast forward to early 2000s. I am already working with one of the biggest multinational companies in the country. My first area of assignment is Samar in the Visayas region. Samar is ranked as the poorest province in the Philippines. 

Source of livelihood is almost akin to my province -- agriculture. But theirs tended to be a farm-to-market type. Ours was export-oriented. Imagine the difficulties when crops are damaged during typhoons, droughts and everything else in between. 

I had my first glimpse of what being rural poor really means. When you don't have an organization to lean to in times of hardship, you have no one but you and the land. I've seen vast expanse of lands and yet the houses dotting them are way too small for a family of four or six or eight. Most of them are made from bamboo and thatched cogon for roofing. Imagine living in it whilst threatened by strong winds during typhoon season. Samar faces the pacific.

I met a struggling working college student who shared with me that the first glass pitcher they have used was a gift from Avon. Before that water is stored in an earthen jar. And in age where electricity is a need, their house is yet to be connected. 

Since then, I have learned to be truly thankful for my blessings. I cannot imagine how their other needs are met when the tough gets going for them. 

It's tough and heart breaking. Here are these families who work so hard to till the lands and yet they continue to struggle despite labor, diligence and perseverance. Not enough. And yet they don't blame the government for their plight. They just hope that someday a portion of the government coffer trickles to their community to build those much needed farm roads, community health centers and permanent health workers. 

Sad. But it's the stark reality. 

Now, let's talk about the urban poor. 

I believe most of them came from the province hopeful of greener pastures in the big city. Before leaving their lands, they must have fiercely believed that Manila will cure them of poverty. I know it may sound absurd but to us who lived in the far flung provinces, Manila has this mystified image as the land of plenty and opportunity. 

But we know that the disparity of whatever is aplenty is wide between the haves and the have-nots. And so it begins the vicious cycle of hopeful probinsiyanos arriving in the big city, shockingly dismayed and yet retains their pride by prodding on in spite of the odds. They are those who defy their situation by finding employment as construction workers, janitors, metro aide, and small entrepreneurs. They believe that time and odds that tip on their favor will lead them to a better life. And I salute them. For whatever occupation they have that requires their blood and sweat is to be admired. There is dignity in labor

My heart is crushed whenever I see how dire their situation is. They live in the dumps because they cannot afford to be anywhere else. 
One of the security guards in the building where I live collects and segregates our garbage. He salvages those that can be sold to the junk shop. He bikes to and from work. Yet in one of our conversations, I learned that his eldest daughter is married to an American and now lives in the US. But he still works hard and look for extra income because his other kids are still in college and high school. He could have taken the easy route and demand allotment from the daughter who is based abroad. But no. I don't think he is very poor but I would surmise that with his income he belongs to the poverty scale, as measured in the poverty index. 

Dignity of labor.

And then there's the professional urban poor. These are those who have been skilled, experts even in being awarded housing in re-settlements sites, sell the housing rights and go back to the slums. Repeat the cycle. Endlessly.

To the argument of Zhorai, it is absurd to fault them to think about the short-term benefit of this arrangement. They grasp at straws when it comes to what little comfort the measly sum can give them. And besides regardless of the amount they generate, it never amounts to anything. For the obvious reason that they are not financially literate. 

And it can even be said about the working professionals. So, it's really hard to expect our urban poor neighbors to make a fortune out of small change. 

I admire the organizations who look after the plight of the urban poor but I hate it when they insist that these illegal settlers must be provided for by the government with decent housing because it's the government responsibility. 

Please, they're not the only the poor in this country. While it is the government's responsibility to provide opportunities for employment and education, it is likewise the responsibility of these illegal settlers to understand that the owners of the land they borrowed have a right to get it back from them. I believe that our freedom is not absolute. It is limited by the rights of others.

I think we should not coddle them. It gives them a false sense of right and entitlement. What we need is for the government and the private sector to work together to design and implement a comprehensive plan that will provide equal opportunities for all -- and hopefully the scale will not tip too much to a certain sector of the society. 

Meantime, let's not indulge and encourage them to defy government efforts to be re-settled. What we need to do is ensure that they are built a functional community so that they do not get tempted to look for another empty land and illegally squat again.

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