Are we richer or poorer?
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 15, 2019 - 12:00am

This being the season of fasting, it’s useful to know how much food a person needs to meet the basic nutrient requirements in our country.

As suggested by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute, each person needs at least 2,100 kilocalories (or 2.1 million calories) a day. According to the FNRI, the basic nutrient needs can be met through a menu like this one: an egg, coffee with milk, and rice for breakfast; fried fish, rice or corn, malunggay leaves, monggo or mung beans and a banana for lunch; boiled pork or chicken, more rice/corn, and bread for supper.

Can an individual afford all of that on P48.91 a day? Probably not. But if the amounts are pooled for a family of five, then the basic nutrient needs could be met, according to government statisticians.

Food accounts for about 70 percent of the components in assessing poverty incidence. The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), using actual consumer prices and the basic nutrient needs set by the FNRI, determined that a family of five needs P7,337 a month to meet the requirement. That amounts to P48.91 as the daily food threshold per individual family member.

A household that meets the food requirement may be able to afford the other basic needs of living: clothing, shelter, cooking gas, transportation, utilities particularly water and electricity, education (now free all the way to college). For all of these needs plus the nutrient requirements, a family of five that can afford to spend P10,481 a month is above the poverty threshold, as defined by the PSA.

The food and poverty thresholds are 10.9 higher than in 2015. Those who are subsisting barely above the thresholds are still considered poor, the PSA stresses.

But in terms of poverty incidence, the figures are lower for individuals, at 21 percent in the first six months of 2018 from 27.6 percent during the same period in 2015. The figures are even better for families, falling from 22.2 percent to 16.1 percent during the same period, according to the PSA.

The proportion of families whose incomes fall below the food threshold – or the subsistence incidence – was placed at 6.2 percent, from 9.9 percent in 2015.

Meanwhile, the ranks of the “food poor” also fell from about 2.2 million families in 2015 to 1.5 million in the first semester of 2018.

The PSA report, released last Wednesday, has reaped an unusual amount of criticism, and has been likened to Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

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On the day the report came out, PSA deputy statistician Josie Perez faced “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s One News to explain their methodology and vouch for the reliability of their data. She stressed that their figures have solid basis: “May basehan yan.”

Their previous studies on poverty incidence, Perez told us, used a sample size of 48,000. But this was useful only for determining poverty incidence at the regional level, so for 2018, the sample size was increased to 180,000 to include the provincial level.

The study was conducted as rice prices were surging. But Bernadette Balamban, of the PSA’s Poverty and Human Development Statistics division, told us that they use the cheapest varieties for the national reference food bundle, and at the time, rice priced at P27 per kilo was still available. The food figures are then compared with per capita income.

Siling labuyo or bird’s eye chili, a staple for many Bicolanos, spiked to an eye-watering P1,000 a kilo when the fuel excise tax pushed up the cost of transporting produce last year. But siling labuyo is not among the basic nutrient needs in the food bundle. And the impact of the fuel tax on inflation and purchasing power was not part of the PSA study.

Perez said the PSA also does not consider if a person is too poor to support a habit such as smoking or drinking. The PSA report is not based on self-rated poverty.

Growth in the construction and manufacturing sectors, which created jobs and raised family incomes, was cited by the National Economic and Development Authority for the decline in poverty incidence.

The PSA officials refused to predict the final poverty figures for 2018, saying they weren’t in the business of forecasting. But they noted that while the poverty threshold was highest in Metro Manila, the region also accounted for the lowest poverty incidence.

Even poverty incidence in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, traditionally among the worst nationwide, was down to 55.4 percent in the first semester of 2018, according to the PSA. That’s still more than half of the entire region, which is now part of the new Bangsamoro ARMM, so residents must be as mystified by the poverty figures as the rest of the country.

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Noel Felongco of the National Anti-Poverty Commission told The Chiefs that so far, the government is on track to achieving President Duterte’s target of bringing the poverty incidence down to 14 percent by the end of his term.

Felongco, of course, is not among those skeptical of the PSA figures, which he attributes to social protection and job generation programs such as Build Build Build. He admitted that inflation remains a concern for poverty alleviation.

Organized workers have slammed the PSA report, saying it was meant to blunt calls for wage increases amid rising consumer prices.

The PSA report has earned flak not just because of the rosy figures that cover only the first semester of 2018, but also because of the timing of the release. This is, after all, not just the season of fasting, but also of election campaigning, when any good news on the economic front can boost the chances of administration bets.

Perez and Balamban don’t look like the types who would manipulate statistics for partisan considerations, and they have promised to release a fact sheet on the PSA’s methodology.

Still, we’ll just have to wait for the full-year report on poverty to come out, for a more accurate assessment of this problem.

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