I had an interesting conversation with a sociologist and a historian yesterday. In part we touched on the idea of self-assessed poverty, and how it intersected with Nick Joaquin’s A Heritage of Smallness.
It is difficult to question when someone rates themselves as poor. But I think it is an important question to ask. By what standard of living can we self-differentiate between poverty and middle class in the Philippines?
In the course of a research project, and doing some outreach work, one of the people I talked to brought up the fact that some people who aren’t necessarily poor according to Philippine economic and social standards rate themselves as poor. For example, one subject is a driver for a company. He owns a piece of land in an urban area (bought legitimately), he built a home on it. His wife works as an accountant in a major accounting firm, they have two children both going to a decent private school. Yet, when asked if he is poor, he still says yes. By most social standards, owning land, having a home, putting children through private school, and owning a motorcycle would qualify nebulously as middle class. Yet here that standard of living it seems is still self-rated as being ‘poor.’
In this discussion a differentiation between extreme poverty, those who live under the international standard of $1.25 a day, has to be made. I am not referring to those who live in abject poverty. It is very difficult to bring up whether someone is poor or not, so may be the better social question is what do we see as not poor.
I wonder if our understanding of what it means to be middle class is still colored by our colonial history. We have been indoctrinated with wholly western standards of wealth and affluence. In a way, I wonder if we only consider those who live in the golden ghettos of Greenhills and Makati as being not poor; or being affluent.
Poverty and economic standing require social context. What might be poor in one country is not necessarily poor in another. We can look at the raw numbers (average income and so on) and say, yes the Philippines is poor vis-a-vis our neighbors and other nations in the world. And yes, that would be accurate. Just as an American of average means would likely be considered ‘poor’ according to the Basques or Norwegians. But within our social and economic context what necessarily makes someone see themselves poor and what will allow them to see themselves as middle class? Beyond the raw numbers that is.
This brings in Joaquin’s idea in his A Heritage of Smallness essay. He was arguing that the way we construct our identity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. We see ourselves as a poor nation, so we are a poor nation. We see ourselves as corrupt, so corruption flourishes. We see ourselves as downtrodden, so we become doormats.
Going back to my original question: By what standard is middle class in the Philippines? Is someone who can own land, own a house, and send their children to a decent private school objectively poor?
It is a thorny question, one that is difficult to even ask without inciting recriminations of the person asking the question. There is little doubt that our country is ‘poor’ right now. Yet I do wonder: Is our perception of ourselves as a poor people coloring our perception of individual circumstances?