Why are we poor? (Why are we happy?)

Why are we poor? (Why are we happy?)

Jan 15, 2014

An enormous 55% of Filipinos consider themselves poor! That is according to the SWS survey conducted in the last quarter of 2013. However, based on the 2012 poverty statistics released by the National Statistical Coordination Board, which examined various monetary and non-monetary measures of poverty in the country, only 19.7% were poor. Before we conclude that there was a dramatic increase in poverty, we should highlight the main difference in the surveys. The former (55%) was a self-assessment while the latter (19.7%) was based on monetary and non-monetary measures.

I am not going to delve on the accuracy of the measures of poverty but I wish to discuss a very fundamental truth about poverty. Poverty is a mindset. It is not so much about not having food, clothing and shelter but a debilitating hopelessness to improve one’s financial condition. And I find it alarming that more than half of our countrymen are in this situation because I know how powerful the mind is: Whether you think you can or you cannot, you are right!

A lot of people have given their opinions on what our government is doing wrong left and right so I will just focus on my observations about our culture that propagates this poverty mindset. It is noteworthy that even if some of these attributes are positive at the outset, they could also bring about propagation of poverty.

1. Generally speaking, Filipinos are meek and humble. It’s always good to be humble but the problem is when we overdo the meekness. The typical Pinoy will not assert his convictions and goals. Among the things I always hear are “Hindi ko naman pinapangarap na maging mayaman…”  (“I do not dream of being rich…” or “Hindi ako yayaman kasi…”  (“I will never be rich because…”) Boom! In trying to be humble he already sentenced his financial journey a failure. Come on, are there people who honestly don’t want to be rich? This could also be a way of shielding oneself from failing. If you announce that you want to be rich and not make it, the embarrassment might be too much to bear. But always remember the counsel of wise men: The real danger is not in setting your goal too high and not attaining it, but in setting it too low and attaining it!

2. A lot of Filipinos have not come to terms with their real relationship with money. They are still affected by some negative thoughts about money, which they heard growing up like money is the root of all evil and the distorted notion of romanticizing poverty. Jesus said love the poor but not poverty, because poverty can be ugly. It attacks the hungry and desperate and oftentimes forces them to do evil.

3. Filipinos love the drama of miracles. I’m a Catholic but I have a problem with fanatic devotions that bring unnecessary harm. Last January 9 was the Feast of the Black Nazarene and as usual a mammoth crowd of devotees flocked to Quiapo to have a glimpse and touch the image in the hope of a miracle happening to one’s life. More than 1,600 casualties occurred but somehow I don’t see anyone being held responsible for this. Compare that to a rally that would result in that number of casualties. It’s as if no one dares to question this practice that brings about harm year in and year out. Why do the devotees have to do that on that particular day even if it’s risky? They have 364 more days to do that in a more solemn manner because the image is just in Quiapo church. Ah, because it’s only on that day that the miracle will happen! The truth is miracles happen everyday. And the good and reliable ones are those that are disguised in everyday opportunities to improve our lives. It’s in getting up early in the morning and doing your work with joy, in helping and loving others in the most ordinary way. It’s no different from buying lotto tickets and joining noontime shows to win cash prizes, when one can work to earn a living everyday and religiously save and invest his earnings for a bright future.

4. Family love and support. I am a grateful recipient of family love and support and this is one of the reasons why I will always choose to live here. However, this Filipino family love and devotion has also brought about overdependence of some members on the earning ones. The OFW plight is not only working away from home and loved ones but the burden of being the family (and sometimes barangay) alkansya or ATM! They feel obliged to provide for their other family members indefinitely to show family love and support, making it hard for them to prepare for their own retirement. If kept unchecked, this becomes a vicious cycle of poverty in the family.

5. The Haciendero/Kasama Relationship. We have not outgrown feudalism. Even those who have not experienced being a tenant or haciendero somehow observe this relationship. This is very predominant in the way mayors and other elected officials treat their constituents. I guess this is the reason why the poor don’t really care about the corruption and abuse of power of their leaders. As long as they get their free hospitalization, abuloy sa patay and free birthday cake (supplied by the bakeshop of the mayor’s relative), it’s okay. In your own household, your domestic helpers are always asking for vale (salary in advance) because they fail to save from their earnings. Before you know it, debts have piled up and the helper feels hopeless about ever attaining financial freedom. And this is the same with credit card and other forms of debts. I am proud to say that my Ates at home have saved up for their Emergency Funds and continue to invest for their retirement. This did not come easy. A lot of explanations, assurances, mindset shifts had to be made. Recently, they encountered some emergencies and they were quite proud to have weathered those not by asking for a loan but by using their emergency funds. They felt empowered.

6. Family size. They say having a big family is a source of more love and support. However, if you look closely this does not come automatically with size but has to come hand in hand with the parents’ capabilities to raise their children well. The poor have bigger families in general and their number of children is oftentimes unaffordable to them. This is sad because Filipino parents are probably among the most devoted, but what happens when they beget children they can’t afford to raise? They make them their “investment” in the sense that they expect their young children to work for them, dropping out of school just to help put food on the table. This is unfair. I long for the day when Filipino parents (especially mothers) will take control of the number of children they plan to have.

7. Education. We need to improve the quality of our public education and make sure that the drop out rate, at least up to high school, approaches zero. Why? Because if one is illiterate the chances of being poor is 99.99%! What more, as long as our population is predominantly undereducated, votes will continue to be for sale. Electing corrupt vote buyers to office perpetuate national poverty.

8. Dignity. When I interviewed Tony Meloto of Gawad Kalinga I remember that my biggest take away on the success of GK was restoring the dignity of the poor. It is when you have a decent place to live in, that you will remember how valuable you are as a person, capable of earning a decent living, drastically reducing the crime rate in the community. This should be a big motivator to eradicate squatting in our country. We have to get rid of that “puede na/patche-patche mentality.” When we were in Hong Kong recently, my sons were saddened to see domestic helpers sitting on old, some even tattered, cardboards on their day-off near the IFC Mall. Some can argue for them that it’s because they would rather remit the cash to their families back home than buy decent picnic mats for their weekly use. We should remember that there is great value in taking care of your appearance. If you dress up and act like a mendicant, others will definitely treat you like one.

9. The crab mentality. Inability to be happy for the success of others says a lot about you. Again, this is a mindset matter. If your mindset is that the world is not abundant then someone’s gain is your loss. But the reality is the world is abundant. Someone’s success story can actually be your inspiration and pave the way to your own success!

You may have other factors you want to add to my list. As I wrote down these nine items, I wondered, “How can a country, whose people consider themselves poor, be ranked among the happiest in the world?” Maybe we ought to be angry about our situation to compel ourselves into action.  And once our plan is set, let’s get back our happy disposition in carrying out our steps to a brighter future. Happiness is also a mindset. If we all understand that poverty is a mindset and do something about it, then that 55% will eventually be reversed!

Wishing you all financial happiness,