Op-Ed Commentary, Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 8, 2014, p. A9.

Perennially bugging the national leadership and society at-large has been persisting poverty even during periods of economic growth appreciably higher than its long-term norm. It is intimately linked to joblessness which the Social Weather Stations (SWS) latest survey reported last February 11 at 25.2 percent for 2013 (roughly equivalent to the official un- + under-employment at 24.4 percent), creating quite a media stir.  Coincidentally, the SWS news appeared on the same day that the NEDA came out with the updated Philippine Development Plan (PDP), on which the Cabinet was reported to have met for eight hours.

The relative innovation in the PDP is the importance given to the spatial dimension of poverty requiring the action plan to group the country’s provinces into three. For example, Category 3 puts the spotlight on particularly vulnerable areas that call for investment in disaster-resilient infrastructure and programs. Not so new, it seems, because it’s been bandied about in public forums, is the effort to revitalize or boost the job-creating sectors such as industry (especially manufacturing), agriculture and tourism, coupled with investments in strategic infrastructure projects, and skills training programs. These are designed for provinces under Categories 1 and 2, with difference in emphasis depending on specific local needs.

The PDP action plan looks plausible and is welcome, indeed. However, it appears lopsided on the demand-for-labor side, i.e., employment creation. Apart from the skills training programs, scant attention is given to the supply-of-labor side due to population growth. Population management policy must be an integral part of the overall strategy to come to grips with persistent poverty and joblessness. An important instrument of such policy is the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health (RP-RH) Act which has been held at bay in the Supreme Court for over a year now. A main thrust of the RP-RH Act is to provide couples the capacity for informed choice in the number and spacing of their children, thereby enabling them to lead more dignified and fulfilling lives. As shown by our progressive Asian neighbors, such a policy, precisely because it benefited mostly the poor, significantly contributed to reducing poverty and joblessness.

Official survey data have shown time and again that the poorest women have considerably more children than they want and can afford to support. Consider the following simulation. If currently married women of reproductive age (CMWRA) in the poorest quintile (Q1) by availing themselves of RP-RH services, had achieved their wanted total fertility rate (TFR, i.e., total number of children), the country’s poverty incidence would have gone down significantly from the actual 26.5 percent in 2009 to 24.9 percent, and further down to 23 percent if CMWRAs in both Q1 and Q2 had achieved their wanted TFRs.

The above estimates are conservative because, for one, they exclude unmarried women and teenagers whose pregnancy rates have been rising. For another, they are purely demographic effects and do not account for demographic-economic dynamics. For instance, as poor women are unburdened of unwanted pregnancies, they could find work or participate in continuing education and skills training, leading in turn to smaller desired family size.  Fewer and better cared-for children can then look to a more promising future, and so on.

Note that the government’s recently-revised target is to bring down the poverty rate to 23-25 percent this year and 20-23 percent in 2015 from 25.2 percent in 2012. Depriving women and couples in need of RP-RH services has delayed poverty reduction and precluded our poverty incidence from hitting the Millennium Development Goal of 16.6 percent by 2015 from 33.1 percent in 1991. Significantly, despite some decline in poverty rate, the number of poor Filipinos has shot up from some 20 million in 1990 to about 25 million currently, thus worsening intergenerational poverty.

Come now the results of the 4th Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Survey conducted by the UP Population Institute revealing that teenage mothers (15-19 years of age) had ballooned to 13.6 percent (683,000 in number) in 2013 from 6.3 percent (262,000) in 2002. Typically, these teenage girls, mostly from the poorest households, are likely to drop out of school, perhaps become pregnant again subsequently and, hence, face a grim future. Coming on the heels of their poor parents, the cycle of intergenerational poverty is thus perpetuated. Teenage pregnancies can be avoided by a provision in the RP-RH Law for age-appropriate sexuality education in schools. Parents typically keep mum with their children on sexuality matters, driving children to learn haphazardly from peers or magazines.

Contributing further to intergenerational poverty and joblessness is the largely unappreciated monstrous fiasco that is the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) launched in 1988, according to a recent paper by national scientist Raul V. Fabella. Its highly vaunted objective was “the enhancement of the beneficiaries’ dignity and quality of life through the pathway of farm productivity”. However, after a generation and 84 percent of the 5.37 million hectares of land earmarked for distribution already achieved in 2012, farm productivity dropped in the agrarian reform communities while more than half of the reform beneficiaries fell below the poverty line compared with over a third poor among farmers in general.

The lessons seem clear. Pursue in earnest job creation coupled with skills training and education, while enabling couples to achieve their desired family size. Keep the youth in school and girls from premature motherhood. And supplant CARP with a more intelligent policy reform for agriculture.