Debating poverty

Debating poverty

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Posted on February 25, 2016

I enjoy good debates because they illuminate issues and clarify facts. They enable listeners to gain insights that can help them make up their minds. In the end, a good debate makes everyone wiser.

In particular, a presidential debate lets us hear what principles a candidate invokes to address national issues and, based on this thinking, what the candidate plans to do. It reveals the candidate’s mind-set, value system, and governance style.

The View From Taft

Benito L. Teehankee


Eager to gauge how the candidates would think on their feet and whether their ideas were sound and practical, I tuned in to last Sunday’s presidential debate. I was particularly interested in Round 2, which dealt with the theme of poverty and development. I strongly believe that the next president must be a champion for growing the middle class through opportunities for all.

Co-moderator Mike Enriquez framed the general issue: How will the next president address the fact that, despite healthy economic growth in recent years, millions of Filipinos remain poor and unemployed? Next, he randomly picked out specific questions for specific candidates from a bowl of prepared questions. Another candidate was designated as a responder.

The first question picked was on how the candidates plan to help farmers buried in fertilizer and rental debts, especially at a time when the country continues to import cheaper rice and vegetables.

Vice-President Jejomar C. Binay, Sr. and Sen. Grace Poe essentially agreed on supporting farmers in terms of modernization, subsidies, and marketing assistance. They favor helping farmers in planting higher-yielding or higher-value crops. I give a plus to Binay for specifying possible fund sources from Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program and for proposing the waiver of irrigation fees. Credit goes to Poe for sharing statistics on the low earnings of farmers and the low yields from aging coconut crops, and for pushing for the use of coconut levy funds to help farmers.

While both candidates’ claims have to be fact-checked, their reasoning was clear, and their proposals seem doable.

The second question brought the poverty issue literally to the stomach: How will you make sure that the 2.6 million families who are hungry will have food?

Poe offered her pet advocacy of having a feeding program in the public schools to support children’s mental development. The proposal is based on the Nutribun program of the Marcos years which continued until the ’90s. She reiterated the need to subsidize farmers for irrigation and crop replanting. She also argued for more government protection for farmers against cheap exports.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago responded that no president has ever reduced poverty. She seemed clearly mistaken because poverty has decreased from a high of about 35% in the early ’90s to its current level of 25%, where it has hovered since 2012. She also posed the question of funding almost rhetorically. But isn’t funding social initiatives through an approved budget precisely the role of the presidency? I give that round to Poe for her more solution-centered and decisive approach to this issue.

The third question was, I think, the most important: How will you make sure that the wealth of the country will not remain with a few but will go down to the poor?

Santiago argued for a bigger share of public funding for health, education, rural infrastructure, and social welfare. She confused me again on her tax strategy. She argued for eradicating the estate tax because tax cases take too long to resolve. But isn’t the estate tax a means to tax the rich to support the poor? I hope she clarifies this idea.

Sec. Mar Roxas responded by claiming that the administration’s social programs had already uplifted 2 million families out of poverty. He promised to continue these programs as president.

I found the answers of Santiago and Roxas equally unsatisfactory. They seem to believe that the increasing concentration of wealth among a few families can be redistributed through social programs.

But this will be too little, too late.

The more fundamental question is how the poor, who are already part of the country’s wealth-creation process, can get their proper share, whether through better prices for their produce, better wages for their labor, or as a share in the business profits. The disproportionate share of the rich from the fruits of the wealth-creation process is the main problem.

Debates don’t only let the public see how the candidates think about issues and what they propose to do about them. They also encourage us to discuss these issues among ourselves so that we can choose public servants who will carry out our will. After all, isn’t this what EDSA is all about?

Benito L. Teehankee is associate professor at De La Salle University. He is also Vice-Chairman of the CSR Committee of the Management Association of the Philippines and Education Chairman of the Shareholders Association of the Philippines.