Philippine Daily Inquirer


- CIELITO F. HABITO Poverty · Society · Social Sciences · Philippines · Rizal · José Rizal · Sinclair Lewis · Social Studies

In on­go­ing field­work for a study on per­sis­tent poverty, my fel­low re­searchers and I keep hear­ing a state­ment that we’ve heard said over and over for many years: The poor are poor dahil tamad sila (be­cause they are lazy).

We’ve heard it from gov­ern­ment and non­govern­ment com­mu­nity poverty work­ers, may­ors and other lo­cal of­fi­cials, of­fi­cials of re­gional line agen­cies, and of­ten, com­mon folk from poor com­mu­ni­ties them­selves.

It was a grade school so­cial stud­ies teacher who I first heard de­scribe co­conut as the “lazy man’s crop,” sev­eral decades ago. The co­conut farmer is pic­tured as hav­ing only to wait ev­ery 60 days or so to har­vest his crop, do­ing vir­tu­ally noth­ing in between. To this date, it is es­ti­mated that two in ev­ery three co­conut farm­ers plant noth­ing between their co­conut trees, even as those who in­ter­crop their co­conut trees with cof­fee, ca­cao, pineap­ple and the like can earn up to four times more.

It’s now well-known that the poor­est of the poor in the Philip­pines are co­conut farm­ers, along with coastal fish­er­folk. Are two-thirds of our co­conut farm­ers too lazy, then, mak­ing them de­serve the poverty they are mired in?

Dr. Jose Rizal wrote of the “in­do­lence of the Filipino” well over a cen­tury ago, ob­serv­ing, even then, a seem­ing lazi­ness among our peo­ple. Con­tro­ver­sial as the no­tion was, much of his ob­ser­va­tions then that led to his use of the con­tested ad­jec­tive re­main true to­day. Rizal did not say that Filipinos are nat­u­rally in­do­lent; rather, he ar­gued it to be the ef­fect of cir­cum­stances pre­vail­ing around them, in­clud­ing the hot cli­mate.

For this rea­son, the Spa­niard is more in­do­lent than the French­man, who in turn is more so than the Ger­man—ob­ser­va­tions that he took to be em­pir­i­cal fact. But more than cli­mate, Rizal blamed man-made “so­cial disor­ders”: abuse and dis­crim­i­na­tion, gov­ern­ment in­ac­tion, ram­pant cor­rup­tion and red tape, mis­placed church doc­trines, and bad ex­am­ples from some Spa­niards who led lives of in­do­lence. It was these, he be­lieved, that had cor­rupted the Filipinos’ at­ti­tudes and val­ues over cen­turies un­der Span­ish col­o­niza­tion.

Do the Filipino poor pos­sess a “cul­ture of poverty,” as first ex­pounded by an­thro­pol­o­gist Os­car Lewis, which tran­scends gen­er­a­tions, and is com­monly ob­served among the poor across na­tional bound­aries? It is de­scribed as a state where peo­ple have be­come de­void of as­pi­ra­tions and initiative.

Lewis held that the cul­ture of poverty is “both an adap­ta­tion and a re­ac­tion of the poor to their mar­ginal po­si­tion in a class-strat­i­fied, highly in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic, cap­i­tal­is­tic so­ci­ety.” It comeswith the feel­ing of help­less­ness and fa­tal­ism that leads the poor to con­sciously or un­con­sciously sub­vert in­ter­ven­tions to im­prove their well­be­ing. I’ve heard some poverty work­ers throw up their arms in frus­tra­tion, hav­ing reached the con­clu­sion that the poor they work with are be­yond help.

But are they, re­ally? Could we just be look­ing the wrong way, see­ing “lazi­ness” as cause, when it, too, is the ef­fect of more un­der­ly­ing fac­tors and fail­ures of our gov­ern­ment and so­ci­ety?

In fo­cus group dis­cus­sions with of­fi­cials, com­mu­nity work­ers and poor res­i­dents them­selves, we don’t ac­cept lazi­ness as an ex­pla­na­tion in it­self for per­sis­tent poverty. We de­lib­er­ately press the group fur­ther to un­der­stand why such “lazi­ness” pre­vails. In one mu­nic­i­pal­ity with hun­dreds of hectares of idle but till­able lands, it looked at first like the towns­peo­ple lacked the initiative to make pro­duc­tive use of the abun­dant re­source. But it turned out that one of the coun­try’s large prop­erty de­vel­op­ers al­ready owned the lands, en­gaged in typ­i­cal land bank­ing for fu­ture de­vel­op­ment—and they wouldn’t have any­one else touch the lands in the mean­time.

It is now also a com­mon lament that young peo­ple even from farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties refuse to farm. Some see it as a “mil­len­nial thing,” when it is re­ally failed agri­cul­tural poli­cies that have made agri­cul­ture the unattrac­tive oc­cu­pa­tion it is now.

Lazi­ness and the cul­ture of poverty are not in­her­ent and in­evitable blocks to poverty re­duc­tion, as many see them to be. These are, in fact, the very ob­ject of the change we all want to see, and need to work to­gether for.


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