Bernardo M. Villegas
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Greatest Challenge to the Presidentiables (Part 1)

           Discerning voters are posing the sixty-four dollar question to the Presidentiables:  What will they do to reduce poverty incidence in the Philippines, which is the highest in East Asia.  Some twenty five to thirty million Filipinos are having a tough time keeping body and soul together, most of them living in the rural areas as subsistence farmers or fisher folks or landless rural workers.  There are millions of them in coconut regions like Quezon, Bicol, Eastern Visayas, and Northern Mindanao.

          From public statements being made by the five Presidentiables (Jejomar Binay, Rodrigo Duterte, Grace Poe, Mar Roxas, and Miriam Defensor-Santiago), I am disappointed to read that none of them has assigned the highest priority to delivering quality elementary  education to the children of the poor, especially those who are in the countryside. In a research conducted by the Global Development Network of India on fifteen emerging markets, quality elementary education is the number one tool in addressing absolute poverty.   Some of the Presidentiables do refer to improving the quality of education in general.  For example, Grace Poe proposes to lower classroom-to-student ratio to 1:30; raise teachers’ pay to P25,000; maximize digital learning technology; expand scholarship programs, improve student loan accessibility to increase access to higher education.  Mar Roxas recommends offering 100-percent scholarship for top graduates of public high schools.  Many of the candidates are in favor of continuing and expanding the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program, which recently received a big boost when the Asian Development Bank (ADB) granted the Philippine Government a $400-million loan to expand the CCT, which gives cash grants to the poorest families in exchange for meeting certain conditions, especially sending children to school and availing of regular health checkup.  They should, however, make explicit reference to quality elementary education as the most important instrument for equalizing opportunity.

          It is important for our Presidentiables to distinguish between policies that will lead to a buoyant and growing economy and those which directly attack the problem of absolute poverty.  Only direct intervention of the State to make quality basic education accessible to the children of the poor, most of whom are the in the rural areas; increase the number of rural health clinics, especially maternity clinics, in the countryside; and make potable water accessible to the poor in the rural areas will reduce poverty.  Other commendable suggestions like opening the economy wider to foreign investments, accelerating the development of the tourism industry, and implementing government projects to attract capital and generate jobs (mentioned by Vice President Jejomar Binay); or expanding agricultural production through agri-financing reforms and implementation of Land Bank programs for farmers (mentioned by Rodrigo Duterte); or offering 100-percent scholarship for top graduates of public high schools (mentioned by Mar Roxas); or raising minimum wage to living wage level or lower income taxes (mentioned by Miriam Defensor-Santiago)  will only  improve the welfare of the 75 million Filipinos who no longer belong to the poorest of the poor.  All these measures, which I fully support, will benefit Filipinos through the healthy forces of the market.  Strictly speaking though, they are not directly going to impact on the poorest of the poor who are marginalized and are, therefore, not benefited by even the freest and most competitive markets.  We have to remind ourselves over and over again what Pope Francis recognizes by pure instinct:  there is no trickle down of even the most rapid economic growth.

          In this regard, let me refer to the critique by U.S. economist Alan Krueger of the best selling book entitled Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French author Thomas Piketty who attributes increasing economic inequality within and among countries to the concentration of financial capital in the hands of a few.  Professor Krueger, who teaches economics at Princeton University, maintains that the lack of access to quality education among the poor is a more important factor to explain income inequality.  In the words of Krueger:  “Thomas Piketty’s book highlights the role that financial capital—money—plays in driving inequality.   But another kind of capital has even greater impact on inequality:  human capital.  And it’s education, not a global tax on wealth, that is a good policy to reduce inequality.”  In the context of the Philippines, the emphasis should be on improving the access to quality elementary education of the children in the rural areas.  Improving human capital at the secondary level (including technical and vocational schools) and the university level will go a long way in achieving higher economic growth and we must support these policies.  We need higher economic growth to generate the income for the Government to spend much more on free quality elementary education for the children of the very poor.  But it must be made very clear that a rapidly growing and dynamic economy does not necessarily liberate the very poor from dehumanizing poverty.  (To be continued).