Poverty and the self-entitled presidency

my Trade Tripper column in the 13-14 November 2015 issue of BusinessWorld:

Last week, BusinessWorld came out with the results of a survey pegging 3.5 million Filipino families experiencing hunger in the last three months. That represents, in just a three-month period, an increase of 700,000 hungry families. Government response to this was predictable: “We continue to address the main problems of hunger and poverty. These are related and government has implemented the social intervention -- poverty alleviation programs that we have done, CCT (conditional cash transfer) for one,” said Edwin Lacierda, presidential spokesman.

And so trust is placed in the CCT program. But with a cumulated total of P300 billion allotted for it, whatever good those programs may initially have brought has plateaued. Ultimately, it will prove harmful to Filipinos. Look around: nearly 24% unemployment, 26% poverty incidence, 7% school drop-out rate, and rising incidence of crime.

Interestingly, the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines had some pretty sensible things to say about poverty alleviation. Through its spokesman, it said that poverty “is high because the current administration’s efforts to curb poverty are off tangent (sic) and inter-agency programs are ineffective... [I]ncome taxes are still high, contractual workers are not reduced, electricity rate is among the highest in Asia, joblessness is widespread.”

Paternalistic, self-entitlement encouraging programs simply don’t work.

Five decades ago, the United States decided to launch its own anti-poverty campaign. And yet, as Ed Feulner relates (“A poor way to fight poverty”; 2014), the success never came: “That was $22 trillion ago... Yet the poverty rate is essentially the same as it was 50 years ago.”

The problem is the tendency to romanticize poverty.

This Feulner effectively points out: “When most people hear that a family is living in poverty, they naturally picture people suffering from significant material deprivation... But government surveys show that many of those officially designated as poor are surprisingly well-off. Less than 2% are homeless, and only one in 10 live in mobile homes. The typical house or apartment of the poor is in good repair and uncrowded. Indeed, the typical ‘poor’ family has air conditioning, cable or satellite TV, and a computer in the home. Forty percent have a wide-screen HDTV. Another 40%have Internet access.”

Mutatis mutandis, the scenario is pretty much the same here.

And yet, despite the continuing ineffectiveness, the temptation to throw even more money got stronger.

In the US, as Stephen White relates: “The federal government currently spends about $800 billion on 92 separate anti-poverty programs, yet the poverty rate today is higher than it’s been in decades.”

Needless to say, our CCT program will meet the same fate.

This amidst a proposed 2016 budget of P3 trillion, representing a whopping 461% increase from 2000 and a nearly 300% from 2006.

Blame on poverty, again, is placed on corruption.

Setting aside the fact that the most massive corruption and crimes in this country are actually committed not by the poor but by our rich elite families, how will giving money away solve any of our issues is baffling.

The results of a study I’ve kept pointing out (“Childhood family income, adolescent violent criminality and substance misuse: quasi-experimental total population study” by Amir Sariaslan and his colleagues, British Journal of Psychiatry, Aug. 21 2014) was described by The Economist as suggesting “that merely topping up people’s incomes, though it may well be a good idea for other reasons, will not by itself address questions of bad behaviour. The second raises the possibility that the problem of intergenerational poverty may be self-reinforcing,” what with “the lack of impulse-control they engender also tends to reduce someone’s earning capacity.” “Neither of these conclusions is likely to be welcome to social reformers.”

Coincidentally enough, the amount of the 2014 budget deficit (P73 billion) is roughly equivalent to the 2014 budget for the CCT (at P62.6 billion).

So let’s agree on the reality that our government is burning taxpayers money.

For the Philippines, rather than corruption or foreign intervention, this paternalistic culture, where people willingly abandon thinking in favor of a government that will “take care of them” is what’s holding us back.

That’s why we should also rid ourselves of the notion that poverty should excuse people from any personal responsibility.

Some of the poorest countries in the world actually have the lowest of crime rates: Azerbaijan, Andorra, Angola, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso and Mali, Cambodia, Cameroon, and Vietnam.

Hence, why I reiterate the ideas I’ve expounded in previous articles: to focus on policies that foster, encourage, and strengthen virtues and the traditional family.

Virtue, such as self-reliance, of which the traditional family is the prime teacher, is what makes democratic societies work.

As Michael Novak (Democratic Capitalism, Sept. 24, 2013) declared: “The prospering of free societies depends on certain moral and cultural practices.”

If our government would instead work harder to support the traditional family, including assisting religious organizations, we might finally get somewhere regarding poverty.