A variety of crops from hinterland barangay of Guihulngan City, Negros Oriental, is displayed at an agri-fair in July 2022. Yet, the Central Visayan region has the highest number of poor among the country’s 17 regions. Photo from Lag-asan Elementary School in Guihulngan City.
A variety of crops from hinterland barangay of Guihulngan City, Negros Oriental, is displayed at an agri-fair in July 2022. Yet, the Central Visayan region has the highest number of poor among the country’s 17 regions. Photo from Lag-asan Elementary School in Guihulngan City.

THE Philippine Statistics Office's 2021 full-year survey on poverty, released two weeks ago, showed that official poverty incidence among the population increased from 16.7 percent in 2015 to 18.1 percent in 2021. This means that about 20 million Filipinos are officially poor. Note that the full-year result is several percentage points lower than what appeared in the first semester report.

Of course, we may question the PSA's basis for reaching its figures — Batangas Sixth District Rep. Ralph Recto found the P12,030 monthly poverty threshold for a family of five completely unrealistic. This amount is derived from the national annual per capita poverty threshold of P28,871, or P2,406 per month per person. Multiply that by five (family members), and you get P12,030. How was the per capita poverty threshold computed? It appears to be based on the National Statistical Coordinating Board's formula contained in a resolution from May 2011. The basis for estimating the income needed to meet basic food needs is the cost of locally available "nutritionally adequate" food bundles. As for the poverty incidence, "an aggregate of expenditures on" food, clothing, utilities, housing, health care, education, transportation and communication is used.

The government in 2011 "refined," to use its own word, the formula for estimating the poverty threshold with the above-quoted NSCB resolution "to address the issue on the overestimation of the poverty threshold and poverty incidence." Was this an attempt to make the Philippines look "less poor" than it was? Or a matter of adhering to some international standard?

On the other hand, estimating poverty at provincial levels was strengthened with improved methodology to gather local data. Considering that poverty incidence in rural areas is usually higher than in cities, getting if not 100 percent accurate at least better estimates of the poverty situation in the provinces helps the government to come up with targeted poverty alleviation and economic development programs.

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Looking beyond the national data yields interesting findings. The poorest of the poor regions, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) has, according to the 2021 full year poverty survey, reduced poverty incidence among population from 61.8 percent in 2018 to 37.2 percent. In absolute numbers this translates to almost 900,000 fewer poor individuals in BARMM. Lanao del Sur accounts for nearly 650,000. I must admit, that the numbers look almost too good to be true but according to the PSA, Lanao del Sur reduced poverty incidence from 71.2 percent to 10.9 percent.

Aside from BARMM, the Davao region recorded a drop in poverty incidence from 19.1 percent to 16.8 percent, while Region 12 (Soccsksargen) saw a modest decline from 28.2 percent to 28.1 percent.

With 37.2 percent of the population living below the official poverty threshold, BARMM still has the highest poverty incidence among the country's 17 regions. However, where BARRM used to have the largest absolute number of poor — almost 2.5 million in 2018 — that spot has been taken over by Central Visayas with 2,221,000 million poor individuals. Cebu province and its three highly urbanized cities account for 1,476,700. Cebu province, with its official full-year poverty incidence at 36.5 percent (from 19.4 percent in 2018), is with 1.2 million the Philippine province with the highest number of people living below the official poverty line. Of course, Cebu is also one of the most populous provinces in the country, ranking fifth in the 2020 Census with a population of 3,325,385. Cebu, Lapu-Lapu and Mandaue cities' poverty incidences more than doubled — from 6.7 percent, 6.8 percent and 6 percent to 14 percent, 14.7 percent and 15.1 percent, respectively.

The PSA poverty threshold is debatable — using a family of five as standard is in itself confusing considering that the average household size today is 4.1, regional averages ranging from 3.8 in the National Capital Region to 5.9 in BARMM. But then again, these surveys are only indicative of the situation, estimates meant to guide policymakers. Taken together with the most recent quarterly self-rated poverty survey of Social Weather Stations that showed 48 percent of families considering themselves poor, the message is crystal clear: while relatively few might be living in abject poverty, too many Filipinos are struggling and are extremely vulnerable to economic shocks.

Controversies such as the sugar importation mess add insult to injury. The Philippine sugar industry is inefficient and protection has only perpetuated inefficiency while benefiting a limited number of people and businesses. The current crisis started in early 2022, according to Coca-Cola Philippines. And that's just the current crisis. In 2017, the company was forced to use more locally produced sugar instead of imported high fructose corn syrup. But local sugar producers reportedly were unable to supply the needed volume of sugar. The damage to the economy in terms of lost production, lost earnings and lost jobs caused by this perennial crisis that the government and our politicians obviously lack the political will to solve, are costs that we can ill-afford. While chaotically implemented, at least the cash assistance for schoolchildren given by the Department of Social Welfare and Development brings some welcome relief.