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Surviving extreme poverty in the Philippines

Almost 20 million Filipinos are deep in poverty, having less to eat and little hope of a better life
Caritas Manila supported poor families through the regular distribution of food packages during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns in the Philippine capital

Caritas Manila supported poor families through the regular distribution of food packages during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns in the Philippine capital. (Photo supplied)

Published: February 02, 2023 04:54 AM GMT
Updated: February 02, 2023 06:59 AM GMT

Jose Toribio, a taxi driver in Manila, is up at five in the morning. He makes his cup of coffee and eats some pandesal, or salt bread, known as the “poor man’s bread” for being a cheap staple in the Philippines.

Sometimes he eats the remaining rice porridge left unsold the previous evening. His wife Lisa Toribio prepares his packed lunch — omelet and rice.

“It’s always egg and rice, sometimes sardines or corned beef, because it’s expensive to eat outside. It’s cheaper when I bring my own food and water while driving the taxi,”  Toribio told UCA News.

At six, he begins to check his cab before driving it along the busy streets of the country’s capital.

“It’s a dangerous job,” he said.

He was mugged three times by men pretending to be passengers. They once snatched every penny, including the money he’d saved to pay the tuition fees for his four children.

"It’s a wasted opportunity if I do not earn from it"

“When you are a taxi driver, a foot of yours is already in the grave. It’s always a risk when you accept passengers at night [in Manila] because you don’t know their intention. But you need to drive for them because you need to earn,” Toribio explained.

After returning home, Toribio does not hit the sack immediately.

Their house is located in the immediate vicinity of a busy bus station where drivers hang out while waiting for their trips.

“I sell hard-boiled eggs and rice porridge till late in the night. It’s a wasted opportunity if I do not earn from it,” he told UCA News.

Toribio toils for 17 to 18 hours a day to make ends meet for his family of six. Two of his children are studying in college while two are in high school.

His wife Lisa Toribio makes less than 8,000 pesos (US$145) a month as a laundry woman in the neighborhood. Put together with his earnings, they barely make 20,000 a month.

The amount is way below the 42,000 pesos monthly income required for a family of five to survive in Manila, according to a report by the country’s National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) in 2021.

Clearly, the Toribio family's income does not even come close to crossing the poverty line. It’s way below half the required amount.

There are millions of Toribios out there in Metro Manila and elsewhere.

A poverty incidence report in 2021 said 18.1 percent of the country’s total population was living below the poverty line.

"There are many out there who do not have any source of income"

This means there are 19.99 million Filipino households whose income is below the poverty threshold, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority.

“Almost 20 million Filipinos are poor … and they cannot afford to provide a college education for their children,” Claira Mapa, a national statistician, told UCA News.

Jose and Lisa Toribios said their Catholic family considers itself “blessed” to have work opportunities.

“The Lord is merciful because we still have jobs. There are many out there who do not have any source of income,” the husband Toribio said.

This is also the case with Marina Cruz, a street dweller who earns by selling rags along the streets of Quezon City.

Cruz sleeps under the Tandang Sora Bridge in Quezon City and scavenges leftovers at various restaurants.

During the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, she struggled to eat because she could not even leave her shanty to beg for food.

“I have no house except for a very little hut made of scraps.... So, when the government ordered that we should home quarantine, I fainted. I did not have food. I didn’t even have a home, how could I quarantine myself,” she told UCA News.

Since the lockdowns, Cruz has relied on donations from Catholic Church groups like the Vincentian project, “Vincent Helps,” which feeds the poor.

“Without Vincent Helps, I would not have had anything to eat. They came looking for me inside my tiny hut to give me food during the lockdowns and I am very thankful for that,” Cruz said.

"The rich should be taxed more to increase public funds that ought to trickle down to the poorest"

Despite such stories of poverty, it is amazing how the country’s economy grew by 8.3 percent in the first quarter of 2022.

What’s also amazing is that nine of the country’s richest billionaires have more assets than half of the country’s total population, according to Oxfam International, a global movement that seeks to end inequality.

“The inequality experienced in the Philippines is starker than ever,” Oxfam Pilipinas Executive Director Erika Geronimo said, citing the Forbes’ billionaires list in an article published by Yahoo.

Among the Philippines’ richest are the Sy siblings, owners of SM Malls, with a net worth of US$12.6 billion, and Manuel Villar, a former lawmaker and real property magnate whose net worth is $7.8 billion.

Geronimo argued that the rich should be taxed more to increase public funds that ought to trickle down to the poorest.

Political experts, however, doubt this proposal could happen as a majority of the top rich families are part of or have deep relations with the country’s polity.

“They are not going to raise taxes. That’s being self-destructive. Of course, they do not want to pay more and they [the rich] are in control of the laws,” Danilo Valdez, a political expert, told UCA News.

Villar’s wife and son are Philippine senators.

In the face of a widening gap between rich and poor, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has expressed solidarity with the poor and appealed to rich people’s generosity.

“I would like to assure you [that] we continue to offer prayers for relief from your current situation, if not for an end to your hardships. To those who have more in life, please help those who are in need,” Bishop Jesse Mercado, the prelates’ Commission on Family Life chair, wrote in a pastoral statement last month.

“In these difficult times, let us turn our gaze on the Lord who alone can provide us with everything that we need.… Let us serve as God’s representatives, the poor, to let others know that we are here for each other” he added.

The Toribio family may take solace from the bishops’ words.

But at the end of the day, their work and toil will continue to put food on the table.

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