Tuesday, July 29, 2008

GMA's SONA Largely Ignored the Middle Class

This year's SONA was definitely not among GMA's best. It could even be her worst. Her speech contained no policy surprises (the only surprise was the mayor in bahag but it was more shocking than surprising really), it was short on programs, it lacked coherence and was totally uninspiring. The gist of GMA's speech to me was this:

"Our country is (once again) in a crisis. High fuel and food prices will, in all probability, be here to stay so we all need to tighten our belts a little more. There's nothing your government can do because these are global developments. But your government will try to 'cushion' the effects but only for the poor. You rich and middle class Filipinos I will leave to your own devices."

What struck me more was not what GMA said but what she didn't say in her speech. I was hoping that President Arroyo will scrap the EVAT on oil or at least peg it at say P55 per liter. I was also hoping that she would alter her stance on population management. There was hardly a mention on job generation programs, increasing investments, improving the tourism climate - traditionally middle class issues - in her speech. At least she asked Congress to approve ASAP the Panay Relief Fund which is a good thing. But by and large, this year's SONA was focused more on pandering to the poor. She spent the better part of her speech detailing her pro-poor social programs and defending the EVAT (which she firmly insisted she needs to fund her "pantawid" programs for the poor). I find this quite ironic because while she was delivering her speech, the same people whom she professed to care most about (the poor) were outside Batasan loudly condemning her administration while the people she largely ignored in her speech (the middle class) were in their workplaces silently going about their productive lives and earning a living.

It is the working middle class, not the poor, who is being hit hardest by the current food/fuel crisis. The poor do not use gasoline or LPG (40% of our population still use firewood/uling for cooking), they do not pay income tax and they generally buy non-VATable items. The city-based tambay rarely leaves his neighborhood and ride a bus or a jeep. The only VAT-able item a farmer usually buys is cooking oil because he usually just picks his food around his farm. It is the professional wage earner which rides a car or takes the bus to work everyday and he is the one na nakakaramdam each time the oil companies raise their prices every weekend.

The president largely ignored the plight of the middle class despite the fact that it is the middle class who pay the taxes which subsidize her government. GMA won the 2004 elections because the middle class abandoned Roco and Villanueva and rallied behind her to prevent an FPJ presidency. The middle class made her political career. No wonder her already dismal popularity ratings plummeted further. She has lost the support of the only demographic that believed in her. The poor, no matter what she does for them, will always be for Erap while the rich - well, the rich will always play all sides of the political spectrum.

The middle class in this country by and large take care of themselves. During elections they don't wait for the last minute to vote in the hope that ward leaders will come to them with P500 in exchange for choosing a certain candidate, unlike the poor. After elections you will not see them going to their mayor's office soliciting personal favors, unlike the rich. The middle class don't send their children to public schools, don't avail of Philhealth, don't line up to buy NFA rice, etc. In fact, the only social program I know of that they sort of "embraced" is the senior citizens card and that is more for the retired members of their class. They are "low maintenance" so to speak.

There have been many attempts in the past to define and differentiate the Filipino middle class from the poor and the very rich. Quantifying what makes a person middle class is helpful but to me, being middle class depends not so much on one's income but rather on one's attitude to life. I believe that one is middle class if he doesn't rely on government to solve his problems. This "do not rely on government" attitude is the core of the middle class ethos. At best, the middle class attitude towards government is this - "we don't expect any dole-outs from you but at least get out of our way and allow us to work or do business in peace." Fuel prices are sky high but you do not see them clamoring for government to scrap the EVAT on oil. At best, the middle class are willing to take the hit if this would mean helping their less fortunate countrymen.

Historically, the Filipino middle class has always found a way to weather any crisis. For example, when the Philippines was suffering from an economic crisis in the 1980s and there was not enough well-paying jobs in the country, the middle class found a solution by simply going abroad, in the process proving the "doom-and-gloom" economists wrong. Our government didn't collapse and our economy continues to thrive today because of OFW dollars and this was not due to government's conscious effort to push overseas employment but by the collective decision on the part of the middle income sector. Even the current BPO/call center boom was not due to any government policy. Foreign investors saw that our middle class speak good English and grabbed the opportunity to utilize cheap quality labor. The middle class is always ahead of government in finding ways to solve the problem. Government almost always only reacts, the middle class almost always shows the way.

I have nothing against helping the poor. They in fact need government's help the most. But what gets my gall is that GMA seems to be mollycoddling the poor by telling them that we will help you and moreover, it's OK for you to continue producing more babies. By sticking with the Church line on natural family planning (which statistics show is only effective 40% of the time), GMA in effect refused to see the reality that the problem with the poor is that they produce more babies that they can afford. I believe in helping the poor but I also would like to insist that they do their part to deserve help. Instead of using the P80 billion EVAT collection to give token "pantawid gutom" assistance to the poor, why not allocate a part of it to help them improve their lives for good? For instance, government could use P40 billion of said fund for its social programs while the remaining P40 billion could be used for vasectomy and ligation operations. Anyone who agrees to undergo ligation/vasectomy gets P40,000 from the government. At P40 billion that's around 4 million Filipinos. No more condom condom, no more rythym rythym. I think that would put a stop to our overpopulation problem overnight.

Consider these facts: In 1799, the Philippines only had a population of 1.5 million people. By 1948 the country had 19 million Filipinos. In 2007 the census indicated that our population stands at 88 million and it is projected to hit 111 million by 2020. From 1.5 million, it took us 200 years for our population to reach 19 million. But due to improved living conditions and technology,
it took us less than 50 years to quadruple our population from 19 million in 1948 to 88 million today. In other words, we are not only multiplying but multiplying very rapidly - faster than our government and environment can accommodate sufficiently. This administration, the next administration and all the succeeding generations of politicians will try their best to convince you that they will make your life easier for you. But unless they address the root cause of the problem, they will all fail.

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