By Juan L. Mercado

“THERE ARE only two families in the world,” the author Miguel de Cervantes recalls his grandmother as saying. “The haves and the have nots.”

The number of “have not” Filipino families bolted to 4.7 million last year, reports “Official Poverty Statistics,” posted by the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB). In 2003, there were four million such families. This 16% surge comes when jobs are scarce and food prices skyrocketing.

Worldwide, rice prices rose by 36 percent over the last three years, the International Rice Research Institute notes. Corn is a Visayan and Northern Mindanao staple. Prices are now 88 percent higher. Pandesal comes from wheat which costs 200 percent more.

Thus, the bill for a family’s minimum basic food needs increased by almost a quarter. Little is left for rent, school, jeepney fare, etc. And illness can be financially devastating. Just to get by, a family needed at least P 6,274 monthly income in 2006. Below that, you don’t starve. “But you didn’t eat chicken unless you were sick. Or the chicken was.”

“Poverty incidence increased by 2.5%, from 24.4% in 2003 to 26.9% in 2006”. Translated into individuals, that means: Out of 100 Filipinos, 33 were poor last year, compared to 30 in 2003. Actual number of impoverished Filipinos rose from 23.8 million to 27.6 million.

Welcome to the club. That’s 3.8 million more men, women and kids who often skipped a meal, dropped out of school, sought out usurers or did without vital medicine. “To a famished people, the only form in which God dares to appear is in the form of food and jobs,“ Mahatma Ghandi reminds us.

There’s a thin line which economists trace in statistical tables and call: “Poverty Thresholds.” It separates the “haves” from the “have nots”.

In Manila and environs, this threshold stood last year at P20,566. A family with five members, in the National Capital Region, needed at least P 8,569 monthly to keep their heads above water. Nationwide, the threshold was pegged at P15,057.

Penury is most severe in rural areas where four out of every five live: indigenous peoples, small-farmers, landless laborer, coastal fisherfolk, etc. Many swap the poverty of eroded farms for the penury in city slums. In the previous decade, the largest increases in poverty were tracked in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao and Region XII. The rural poor are estimated at 31.2 million

Rooted in the cities, government has been locked, for years, in continuing tension with it’s own rural citizens. And almost without exception, the farmers and fisherfolk are losing. That skewed pattern persists in the latest NSCB report.

Perennial tailender Tawi-Tawi, for example, remained the most deprived province in 2006. There are 8 out of 10 families were poor. Poverty incidence in this island was a staggering 78 percent – compared to zero incidence fo Batanes..

Provinces that failed to budge out of the “10 Poorest Provinces” roll were: Zamboanga del Norte, Maguindanao, Surigao del Norte, Masbate and Misamis Occidental. In 2006, these old timers were joined by new entrants: Lanao del Sur, Apayao, Northern Samar and Abra.

Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Sur, Mt. Province , Biliran and Lanao del Norte managed to break free of the 2003 poorest list by eking out economic growth..

Disparities persist. All 10 “least poor” provinces were in Luzon “The nine least poor provinces in 2000 continued to be so in 2003 and 2006. Batanes was the least poor province in 2006 with 0% poverty incidence, NSCB reported.. “New entrant in 2006 is Quirino with an estimated poverty incidence of 11.1 percent.”

Among 17 regions, Metro Manila chalked the lowest poverty incidence of 7.1 percent – although that’s a fractional a 2.2 percent increase from 2003. Cavite , Laguna, Batangas had low poverty incidence . So did Central Luzon . with 16.7 percent , Cagayan Valley (20.5) and Ilocos Region (26.2).

Only four regions managed to whittle down poverty incidence – a drop from 13 regions earlier. The Zamboanga Peninsula , Northern Mindanao, CARAGA and Western Visayas were among the “gainers”.

“Poverty is the mother of crime,” Marcus Aurelius once said. And a continued slide into poverty is simply suicidal. Yet, empowering the poor to achieve more humane lives is possible. The country has resources, the technology and human skills to achieve this.

But we have to make up our minds to do so. The broadband scandal signals we haven’t done so. And the new Asian Development Bank report – “Philippines: Critical Development Constraints” — confirms, poor performance on curbing corruption and ensuring political stability.

Social and economic expenditures declined from 5% in 1997 to 2.9% pecent in 2005.“Much of recent progress on trimming the budget deficit has been driven by sales of government assets and deep cuts in spending on social and economic services,” the Bank said. “(This ) hit the poor hardest.”

The toll is seen in comparative Asean figures. Per capita paved road length here was a sixth of Thailand ‘s. Foreign direct investment was $1.1 billion in the five years to 2006 compared to $3.9 billion dollars for Malaysia , the report said. Power is the most expensive in the region.

Indeed, poverty here doesn’t stem from natural scarcities.. Rather it stems from corrupt priorities imposed upon the country by our oligarchs. “As a result, the poor are not pitied but written off as trash,” John Berger writes . “( We have ) produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.”

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