By Jarius Bondoc
There’s something terribly wrong when 40% of Filipinos go hungry while their President and her family stride P500-million rich.
This is not to say it’s the Arroyos’ fault that they’re rich. Still, they signify the political class, and that privileged segment of society has not used its clout to pull the people out of poverty.
Two of every five respondents rated themselves poor because lacking food, in the Social Weather Station’s first-quarter 2008 survey. That’s 7.1 million families or 35.5 million individuals, spread out all over.
Simultaneously, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s assets grew P11 million in one year, from P88.6 million in 2006 to P99.6 million in 2007. Her two congressmen-sons also notched huge assets: Mikey, P155 million; Dato, P86 million. A third kin in Congress, brother-in-law Iggy, held P153 million in 2007.
The total wealth of half-a-billion pesos is only of Arroyos in national office, excluding relatives in other agencies or local positions. It consists of real property, jewelry, vehicles and furniture, stock certificates and cash in bank that most Filipinos can only dream of.
Meanwhile, economists peg at P8,000 the minimum monthly income a family needs to make ends meet. Meaning, eat thrice a day and have cash left for clothing and medicines.
But most families earn only half that. The Arroyo fortune is what 125,000 families earning P4,000 made do with in a month.
The political economy works unfairly. As the political elite also rules the economy, the poor depends on it for relief that never comes. This has been going on and will go on for a long time.
As the highest representative of the political elite, Ms Arroyo’s assets have zoomed 50% since she took the Presidency in 2001 with P66.7 million. Now 61, she became senator in 1992 and vice president in 1998. Her father Diosdado was also VP in 1957, and President in 1961-1965.
The sons’ riches too grew since 2001. Mikey, 39, entered politics that year as vice governor of Pampanga, then became congressman of its 2nd district in 2004 and 2007. Dato, 33, took up residence in 2006 in his wife’s province of Camarines Sur, and became congressman of its 1st district a year later. Uncle Iggy, 57, is serving his second term as congressman of Negros Occidental’s 5th district. His present wealth is half his P280 million in 2006, probably due to a separation, but the P153-million remainder still makes him one of Congress’ richest members.
By contrast, the Filipinos who rate themselves poor in terms of food have been suffering thinning incomes. Marking its 20-year-long quarterly surveys to the consumer price index, SWS notes: “The monthly food budget that poor households need in order not to consider themselves poor has remained sluggish for several years despite considerable inflation.” Meaning, the poor actually are lowering their living standards. They make do with no viand on rice more often than before.
Comparing the Arroyo wealth and SWS survey results, the old gripe about Philippine society echoes: the rich become richer, the poor poorer.
The system is kind to the political class, cruel to the ruled. Today’s Macapagals and Arroyos would not have gained political capital if not for their elders. Most of the clans that rule the provinces as governors or congressmen have been in power since the Spanish regime. Few new names ever enter the select circle. The rules are such that they’d need tons of cash and armies of goons to dream to dislodge the old elite in election. The poor take sides not as zealots but beggars for morsels that may be thrown their way if their candidate wins.
While in power the dynasts amass more wealth, oftentimes illegally, to enhance political clout. Kickbacks are routine. They also strive to buff their image a bit with populist gigs: a subsidy here, or wage increase there. But look, they’ve managed to make the pork barrel acceptable although it is the source of all evil in public office.
No matter how hoarse the ruled shout for change, the elite only pays lip service. There’s need for true representation by breaking up dynasties, for instance, but Congress has not passed any enabling law in spite of the Constitutional requirement since 1987. There’s need to improve the election system to end cheating and vote buying, yet no senator or congressman is moving for such. In 2010 the poor will vote the same politicos or scions into power. The only difference is that, based on the trend of SWS surveys, there will be more millions of them lacking food by then.
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