What does it mean to be poor?
It means condemnation to life-long hunger-never enough rice, never enough corn, never enough kamote, never enough kamoteng kahoy and bagoong (fish or shrimp paste) and leaves. Leaf buds are viands It means wearing torn clothes and going barefoot. It means schooling, if at all, stops at Grave IV. It means bearing pain bbecause medicine is expensive It means working in the rain, in the heat of the sun, in the mud, in the refuse of the rich, in the offal of the middle class. It means shame of self, dumbness of the tongue, keeping away from those who are not poor for fear of being criticized and, above all else, bearing unending punishment for being less than others.
And how does it feel to be poor?
Oppressed-because there’s no way out. Angry-deep-seated, corrosive and corroding. Humiliated-because I am always conscious I am less. I got these views from the poor themselves: the children who dropped out of school and drive trisikad (three-wheel bicycle) close to where I now stay in Tacloban City, Visayas, the live-out helpers who stay and help out for a while now that we have a young child, my fisherman-friend Banyong from Angonoy, Bulacan (Central Luzon), the Manubu of Bintangan caught in the MILF-AFP war in Mindanao, Kagi Sahara who lived in a house with a roof so full of holes you can see the sky through it, Kumander Dante when he was poor, the farmers in our small farm in Victoria, Tarlac, Central Luzon.
The poor were and continue to be always with us. They are everywhere you go. Even in Ayala Avenue (in Makati, central Metropolitan Manila) they are there, vending cigarettes and peanuts and tobacco in front of some high-rise buildings. Inside an air-conditioned car you’re not free-when the traffic light is red, they approach with a few wares to sell. How can we possibly not see them? They are as ubiquitous as insects. But we don’t really see them because we choose not to look.
They are Other. And that is at the very crux of this situation. We do not confront them because, well, we do not have to. They are there alright, but we opt not to see them. We have blinders against poverty. And if now and then we have to look at them, we ignore them: for they are not like us; they are Other-Naiiba sila! (They are different!)
They look different. They are dressed differently. They smell differently. They move differently. They speak differently. They are totally unlike us.
And that is why they do not evoke compassion. Much less love. At most, they are an abstract-a hazily floating ephemeral image. A momentary distraction at best. And that keeps us safe: the poor are faceless. They are just a mass, a conglomerate of bad smelling offal, a percentage of our total population, poverty similar to the cockroaches and ants which are always there in the dark — a given, a condition, a presence which we need not deal with. They deserve no more than a few squirts of our charity. We do not have to deal with them directly. The church and the NGOs could do that for us.
I tried to get a statistical basis for this article. I phoned Dr. Emmanuel de Dios of the School of Economics, UP Diliman. His secretary passed me on to his research assistant who gave me these data: poverty-related census data are taken only once every three years and the last one was in 1997 (the one for 2000 is probably not yet ready), according to which the poverty line is drawn at an annual family income of PhP11,388 (which translates neatly to PhP949 per month) and that of our total population, 32.1% families or 37.5% individuals are considered poor. Even if inflation is worked into the data, the figures would still remain minimal. And quite unbelievable, for me. Perhaps there is a need to find out the basis of that census for poverty.
What exactly are the measurements for poverty? Is it the whole package, borrowed from abroad, of course, which has to do with “quality of life”? The erstwhile NEDA had a way of putting it: the Bureau of Nutrition defined the minimal limit for health, i.e. a person had to eat so much or had to take in so many calories to be in good health. These were then given peso values vis-a-vis prices of commodities in the market. So many pesos for so much rice, galunggong, kamote tops, etc. The NEDA then came up with a definition of poverty lines. If your pooled salary (for families) cannot allow you to have the minimum nutrition requirements, you’re poor. I have based this essay on what I have personally experienced. Because this article is not into policy making (No wonder the government policies have been all in the wrong! The statistical data are questionable!) It is into seeing the poverty in our midst. Unless you see it, poverty is just a word and the poor you’ll mass together into a gooey, bad-smelling, contemptible image like Payatas. Until you actually realize that the poor are not other, but that, like you, they are Filipinos too, you will just go on like a horse with blinders.
That’s probably safer. Safer for you, your family, your inner core group. And you can, in most probability, go on not seeing them. Not caring, therefore, for in your mind they exist somewhere out there, but totally unconnected to you. But, remember the slum dwellers across Rogelio Sikat’s fence. And the young teenagers in the suburbs of Davao City who enter middle class homes not to steal anything valuable but just to eat what’s in the larder and in the refrigerator. And the B’laans and other marginalized people in Columbio, Sultan Kudarat who raided an NFA bodega for rice. They, too, were impelled by their hunger. Before the breakdown of civil order, think! Think and act! The teeming poor are in the millions. There are increasing. And they are just outside your door., Give, give to the poor! In the end it will be good for you. It will be good for our entire country. Share, because you have more. Give, because you have more. That is what love is all about.