The incidence of hunger has reached 19 percent of Philippine households, says the Social Weather Stations (SWS) fourth quarter survey. That means that nearly one fifth of the 17 million households in the Philippines, or 3.3 million families, had nothing to eat at one time or another in the last quarter of 2006. At an average Philippine family size of five, 3.3 million translates into 16.5 million or so individuals who have experienced hunger in a population of about 82 million.

The hunger incidence has been steadily rising since SWS began its quarterly surveys on the subject. A September-October 2006 SWS survey showed the hunger incidence in the previous three months at 16.9 percent among Filipino families. It was 15 percent in 2004, fluctuating from quarter to quarter between that figure and 17 percent. But 19 percent is the highest so far recorded.

While 22.3 percent of Mindanao families reported going hungry, the increase was biggest in Manila (from 12.8 percent in September to 17.7 percent in November) and the rest of Luzon (14.7 percent to 17.7 percent). This suggests that hunger is as much as reality in the urban and wealthiest areas of the country as it is in the countryside and the poorest.

Hunger is a reflection of poverty. Fifty two percent of all Filipino families rated themselves poor, said SWS. “Household heads’ reports about poverty in general, poverty in terms of food, and hunger are internally consistent” said the research organization. “A rise in hunger while poverty is flat implies a worsening of deprivation” among the very poor– i.e., while the number of the poorest families remains unchanged, more of them are going hungry.

The US-based development organization Freedom from Hunger notes that the Philippine poverty level rose to 33.7 percent between 1997 and 2000, and that “in present day Philippines, much of the population struggles against chronic hunger and poverty on a daily basis.” More than 20 percent of the population is undernourished, says Freedom from Hunger, while nearly one third of Filipino children younger than five years old “are moderately or severely underweight.”

Although it responded to SWS findings in 2004 by promising (and failing) to distribute food coupons, the Arroyo government has taken issue with recent SWS findings. But the incidence of hunger has continued to rise during its watch despite its claims of an economic turn-around.

The state of the economy is at the core of the growing hunger problem. The economy has failed to provide a steadily growing work force the jobs it needs. While GNP has grown, millions who want to work cannot find work. Millions more among the employed work only part-time or only some of the time.

Whether part-time or full time, the employed have to contend with wages too low to sustain their families’ food needs. The last wage increases were mandated over a decade ago. The prices of prime commodities, housing, and utilities (water and electricity) have since risen considerably, thus constricting access to these needs and forcing many families to do with less, or even without. Depending on the region, wages have so far remained frozen since 1994 at P140 to P250 a day in industry, and P131 to P213 a day in agriculture.

The House of Representatives, apparently to arrest mass disgust over its effort to railroad the “con-ass,” and with an eye on the May 2007 elections, has approved House Bill 435, which mandates a P125 across-the-board daily wage increase nationwide.

While a consolidated version of the bill could pass the Senate, however, the increase won’t curb hunger among the poorest Filipinos, since it will affect only the employed, among whom it will provide economic relief to workers harassed by the rising costs of basic needs including food. But even the employed will have to deal with the usual problems of enforcement. Some employers have been known to go around paying the minimum wage through a number of means enforcing agencies are seldom able to check.

While providing some temporary relief, wage increases don’t address the causes of the poverty that leads to hunger. Among those causes is the skewed distribution of wealth in the Philippines, which means that the fruits of economic growth hardly reach the vast majority. Trade liberalization, which has led to reduced tariffs on incoming agricultural products, has also led to declines in agricultural production.

These declines and a policy of food importations to meet shortfalls have led to record food imports, to which most Filipinos have limited access, again because of low incomes. But the most crucial factor of all is the failure to dismantle the land tenancy system, which the experience of most Asian countries shows is the key to the more equitable distribution of wealth.

The Arroyo regime pays lip service to land reform whenever it suits its purposes, but has not made it a government priority. The result is continuing poverty in the countryside, which drives the landless into the cities, where most of them go hungry.

Obviously the problem cannot fester without aggravating the social unrest that has characterized Philippine history both before and after 1946. Food hunger leads to other hungers, among them for social justice and for better governance. Governments ignore hunger at their peril. But they do need both the imagination as well as the will to confront it. As most Filipinos know by now, the Arroyo regime is fatally deficient in both.

(Business Mirror)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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