Editorial:Pain and poverty

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:20:00 09/15/2008


Part of the sardonic theme song of the movie “M.A.S.H.” goes this way:

“…So this is all I have to say…
That suicide is painless,
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please…’’

Sure suicide can be painless, but that a person should take his own life usually indicates that he or she had been in great pain. Suicide is often an act of desperation, of hopelessness, and is usually preceded by a period of depression. Some psychologists say that most people who attempt or commit suicide don’t really want to die—they just want their pain and suffering to end.

Last week, extreme poverty drove Janeth Ponce, 32, to poison her three children and then commit suicide in Magdalena, Laguna, according to the police. The desperate housewife forced her children, aged 4, 3 and 2, to drink a bottle of toilet bowl cleaner in their house. She then drank the poison herself. 

On Nov. 2 last year, Mariannet Amper, 11, committed suicide in Davao City. An unsent letter and a diary revealed the reason for killing herself: She had lost hope that her family would ever rise from poverty.

The Ponce and Amper suicides are not the first cases attributed to extreme poverty to be reported in the Philippines, nor will they be the last, unless the problem of poverty is solved in the near future.

The Philippines has always been counted among the poor countries of the world. Last Aug. 27, the Asian Development Bank said in a report that the new poverty line in Asia-Pacific is $1.35 (about P61) a day and about 23 million Filipinos were living below that. Using 2006 data, the ADB study estimated that about 27 percent of the Philippines’ 90 million people lived on less than the new regional benchmark of $1.35 a day. The new measure suggests that there is a higher poverty incidence in the Philippines than was recorded in previous estimates.

A survey by the poll group Social Weather Stations in the first quarter of this year showed that the number of Filipino families that considered themselves food-poor rose by one million, from 6.1 million families in December 2007 to 7.1 million last March. The latest figure is equivalent to 40 percent of Filipino households, up from the previous quarter’s 34 percent.

The Philippines exhibits a highly inequitable distribution of income. In 2003, the share of income accruing to the richest 10 percent of the population was more than 20 times the share of the income of the poorest 10 percent, according to the ADB. Since 1985, the richest quintile (fifth) of the population has consistently commanded more than 50 percent of total family income in the country, with the poorest quintile having less than 5 percent.

The situation of the poor is bad, and it is not getting any better. The common perception is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Extreme poverty is pushing many people to acts of desperation. Is it any wonder that people like Ponce and Amper should see suicide as the only way out of a life of never-ending misery, poverty and pain?

The poor do not want to remain poor forever, to be dependent on government and other people for their day-to-day needs. They would like to work, but there are no jobs for them in the country. The World Bank has estimated that about P30 billion is lost to corruption every year in the Philippines. If this amount could be used to establish industries and livelihood programs for the poor, they could be given some means for their subsistence.

If the billions that are being frittered away in pork barrel to legislators and doled out to national and local officials to ensure their loyalty to the President were used instead to subsidize the schooling and a feeding program for the children of the poorest of the poor, they would have a chance to get some education that would allow them to earn more.

The rich also have a responsibility to improve the plight of their poor countrymen. When will the richest of them emulate the example of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, and donate a substantial part of their enormous wealth to projects that would make a difference in the lives of their very poor countrymen?

Until both government and the private sector make a coordinated effort to reduce the incidence of poverty and to correct the terrible inequality in the distribution of wealth, people like Ponce and Amper will continue to consider suicide as a way out of the never-ending pain of extreme poverty.


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