Expensive Poverty

A feature article in the Washington Post online a few months ago examines the dynamics of poverty in urban and rural America, citing a paradoxical truth: poverty is expensive; thus, “you have to be rich to be poor.” I was prepared to be surprised, due of course to my misconception as far as US economy is concerned. But then again, I also know how relative everything is so facts and figures outlined there looked credible enough.

The thesis of the article declares that when one is poor, he has to pay more for basic necessities and services and has to spend more time getting the privileges that the rich take for granted. Taking this into the context of poverty in the Philippines, I’d say this phenomenon is highly universal.

For instance, the article talks about how the poor pay more for food, specially those who buy theirs in the “corner store.” Our own version is the “sari-sari” store. Every corner of our barangay is littered with this little store selling all kinds of what nots. Of course, the biggest consumer is the poor; the rich and upper middle class go to the big supermarkets where prices are lower. We live about 500 meters from the highway where the business district of the barrio is located. A squatter community thrives in the cemetery where a lone store is found at its exit. Goods sold here are about 20-30% more expensive than those near the business area. Walking down the highway to the cheaper stores will of course entail precious time specially in emergency cases where there is no more salt, cooking oil or match in the kitchen. There are also about three carenderia where employees of the memorial park eat lunch. And of course, meals there don’t come cheap. A piece of chicken will cost twenty pesos while a cup of rice is ten pesos. Imagine how disproportionate this is considering a kilo of NFA rice could cost as low as twenty-five pesos. But what can these workers do? Going home at 12 noon will not only cost time but will also cost them precious rest time they need for another four hours of hard, grueling labor under the heat of the sun. Public utility vehicles going to the city where most residents work and study pass through the highway; hence, most of us have to ride on in-bound multicabs or motorcycles for hire to get to the loading zones or terminals. If one works outside the city or in areas not within the route of city-bound PUJ’s one has to spend more on fare. And we are talking back and forth fare here.

Services for the poor cost much as well, specially in terms of time and emotions. When it comes to healthcare, there is much to be desired. Sure there are government hospitals where one does not have to pay a cent for out-patient consultations. Pretty convenient if you have all day to wait in line. About ten years ago when I gave birth to my second daughter at the Provincial Hospital, a woman on labor next to me was scheduled for a CS; unfortunately, she did not have money to buy anesthesia. The nurses took turns scolding her for her lack of foresight. I was thinking that the cruel words would have been easily bearable if they could get her the needed medicine at the end of of their tirade. As it was, those insults probably added to her anxiety, causing her blood pressure to shoot, putting her and her unborn baby in more danger than necessary. My husband was traumatized by the horrifying situation where there were four of us in the labor room, six in the delivery room, and an outnumbered staff going about their duties mechanically. Hence, when I gave birth to my youngest, he made sure I did so in a private hospital. However, we got P20,000 poorer for paying for such luxury.

And whoever said education is a right or made up that cliche which says poverty is not a hindrance to education [more of an exception than a rule actually], must be living in a bubble. My fifth grader just narrated a sob story in school: a classmate who has been absent for weeks came back after several summons from the teacher. Come lunchtime, he did not have any food so he asked to be excused. When the teacher refused, he escaped and did not go back to school since then. This is public school where everything is practically free–no tuition and matriculation fees, no books to buy, no bogus collections. But it still remains expensive. For poor people to spare money for education, they must be awfully rich then. For it is only those who can truly afford the humiliation and deprivation of poverty have the right to call themselves rich.


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