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Opinion

Richer and poorer

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

There’s no lack of stories of inequality in the Philippines; glaring signs and status symbols – vignettes of everyday life here. Rich and poor; prince and pauper; beautiful and ugly; clean and dirty – whether this is a person or a place, you name it, we have it and the line that divides one from the other is stark and telling.

These two contradicting sides of the Philippines are visible almost everywhere.

Take a stroll in Quiapo for instance and you can find yourself inside the belly of the beast – dark, dirty and deadly. Some areas are home to street hawkers who live a hand-to-mouth existence, selling anything and everything, from passport holders to fake diplomas; from religious artifacts to the latest sex toys.

In another city, a few kilometers away, are gated villages and subdivisions, home to the country’s wealthiest families.

Shopping and dining for Filipinos are either in thrift shops or makeshift food stalls or in posh malls where a small cup of milk tea can cost nearly a day’s wage for some of Metro Manila’s poorest.

Malls, hotels and a Michelin-star restaurant are filled to the brim and I haven’t even mentioned the snaking lines in luxury stores.

But elsewhere in far-flung provinces, fishermen and farmers are struggling to increase their catch or their harvest to be able to feed their families.

And if Filipinos want to go on vacation, the wealthy can fly to their favorite members-only resort while those who can’t afford just troop to that fake beach gifted by the government.

The way people commute highlights the great divide, too. Some travel by car while others have to endure our inconvenient public transport system.

I haven’t even started discussing the justice system yet. How many suspected drug users or traffickers have been sentenced – without due process – with a bullet in their head, while ex-lawmakers convicted of billion-dollar scams managed to find their way back into the corridors of power?

Education is also a great divider. The wealthy can send their children to Ivy League schools while most Filipino children have to contend with public schools in this country where the quality of books and other educational materials has deteriorated beyond repair.

Inequality, indeed, is anywhere and everywhere in our constantly turning, moving and chaotic country.

These are just some of the usual signs of inequality in the Philippines. And yet, I haven’t even touched on the deepest and telltale signs of inequality – the capacity to hope and dream.

Some of those who live on less than a dollar a day don’t even bother to hope and dream anymore, resigned to their fate and their desperate and desolate situations. For those born to lives of privilege, on the other hand, the sky’s the limit for their dreams and yearnings.

The two faces of the Philippines

Our two contradicting faces remind us of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

But this isn’t about just a certain era in the Philippines. It is how millions of Filipinos live everyday.

History has shown us that wealth, indeed, tended to be concentrated in the hands of the few.

From the time of the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar and the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan.

Extreme poverty and excessive wealth were products of “great evil in society,” Plato once said, while Plutarch called the imbalances between rich and poor as “the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”

Among the highest in East Asia

Inequality, indeed, is no doubt one of the biggest ailments in this republic of 110 million.

As the World Bank reported recently, income inequality in the country is still high, with the country’s income Gini coefficient, which measures the distribution of income across a population, at 42.3 percent in 2018, one of the highest income inequality rates in East Asia.

“The wealthiest one percent of earners capture 17 percent of national income; all those in the bottom 50 percent collectively receive only 14 percent,” the World Bank said.

The pandemic, it added, has reversed the country’s gains in reducing poverty and inequality.

Reversing inequality

How then do we reverse inequality?

Some believe it might be impossible to completely eradicate inequality.

An entirely equal society, some economists say, might be undesirable, as it would remove diversity and dynamism in society.

But we must do all that we can to narrow the gap.

It is important for every administration to focus on how to reverse it and how to prevent future imbalances.

What the government must do is to enable an environment that would

lead to stronger economic growth, which is said to be the greatest antidote to inequality.

How do we get to this? We know the answers – create jobs, boost productivity and improve social programs such as health and education. Now, we need the political will to achieve these.

Otherwise, we will continue to see the best of us, the worst of us and a wide gap in between. And this cycle will just go on and on like a song.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen on FB.

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