Wexistential Crises, Wayward Thoughts, Welcome Distractions and Willful Pursuits

The Bianca Gonzalez school of thought on poverty and informal settlers

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I’m only vaguely aware of Bianca Gonzalez and I’m not sure what her relevance is to society. She’s been hailed as “the long-awaited messiah of anti-squatter activism,” which is both hilarious and sad on so many levels.

I’m a little late to the party, but a former student of mine recently posted the article “A lot of decent Filipinos are getting fed up with arrogant squatters” on Facebook with an affirmative comment and I felt the need to respond. I didn’t want to get sucked into this argument, but I’m fond of this kid and I’d like to think he’s simply misinformed and not completely hopeless elitist. I said:

This list is a good place to start: “8 Mind-Blowing Realities No One Told You About Informal Settlers

I’ve spent 5 years as a development worker immersed in poor communities in Tondo, and my experience validates this list. It’s a good summary of how the issue of informal settlers isn’t just black and white. The author’s sources came from Benjamin de la Peña, who is the Associate Director for Urban Development at the Rockefeller Foundation.

Re: the notion that the poor are lazy: “Hunger Makes People Work Harder, and Other Stupid Things We Used to Believe About Poverty

“…We’ve gone from thinking that poverty is a necessary ingredient for economic development to thinking that poverty constrains it. Numerous related assumptions have (mostly) fallen along the way: The poor were at fault for their own poverty (through moral weakness, alcoholism, laziness, a penchant for making too many babies). The poor were born that way, and nothing could be done about it. Besides, poverty had its own utility: If people weren’t hungry, they wouldn’t work. Thus, poverty was a social good.”

Except in the Philippines, where apparently lots of people still think that way.

If the poor really were lazy, we would not have janitors, garbage disposal workers, street sweepers, construction workers, masahistas, food stall vendors, mechanics, gas attendants, sales ladies, security guards, delivery boys, and a multitude of other services providers who earn minimum wage or less. Where do you think these people live? They live in the slums, close to their area of employment, where rent is cheap.

No one’s disputing that there are “professional squatters” who are milking the system for all its worth. But I think it’s unfair to make the blanket statement that the poor can get themselves out of poverty if they just try hard enough. Yes, there have been many success stories. But for every success story there are thousands of failures, because there are so many factors involved, many of which cannot be overcome simply by trying. Poverty is an inter-generational cycle that is not so easily broken, especially not without help.

“The government is giving free housing to poor people paid for by my taxes when I don’t even have my own house yet! It’s so unfair!” It’s so unfair that you’ve never had to live in squalor? It’s so unfair that you don’t live hand to mouth and that you don’t need social safety nets? Instead of being outraged, we should feel relieved and grateful that we don’t need to rely on the government for our sheer survival.

Democracy means equality of opportunities, not equality of outcomes. There are precious few opportunities for those who live below and dangerously close to the poverty line. The government should be leveling the playing field, and props to the Aquino administration for trying (I guess), but we’re not there yet (despite the much-reported economic gains, we’re still ranked 114th for the 5th straight year in the Human Development Index).

Of course there need to be mechanisms in place to try to keep people from abusing the system, but we shouldn’t begrudge the poor for needing social safety nets, nor the government for providing them.

Here’s the pragmatic argument: The urban poor are a great resource waiting to be tapped. Giving them real opportunities to improve their situation may seem unfair to those who feel like they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, but the benefits of integrating the urban poor into the fabric of the city far outweigh any initial cost.

This article by Benjamin de la Peña underscores the importance of investing in urban opportunities: “More Urban Growth = Less Rural Poverty

“If history is any guide, large-scale migration to the cities is part and parcel of the transformation economies must go through if they are to grow quickly…

“Research by physicists and mathematicians shows that bigger cities are more efficient and create more innovation and opportunities…

“As we invest in our cities, we need to get them right. We must make sure that they are inclusive and that they expand opportunities.

“The key to getting our cities right is to transform policies that, at the moment, are dominated by the practice of social exclusion and anti-poor policies.

“We need to make sure our cities can provide opportunities for everyone. We need to create cities that are efficient engines for moving people out of poverty.”

And for those for whom pragmatism is not enough, the moral argument professed by many great leaders and philosophers is that the true measure of a society is how it treats its weakest members. For a nation that prides itself on our religiosity we can be so utterly lacking in human compassion.


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