Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Many Poor

When we talk of poverty in the Philippines, the discussion invariably leads to the need for population control. A number comes up -- 85 million, at last count -- as proof that there are far too many Filipinos.

The number itself isn't really proof of anything. There were already far too many Filipinos when the figure was at, say, 60 million; apparently, there was room for another 25 million since then, and the country still hasn't collapsed.

If it was really some hard number at stake, then we ought to object to every expatriate family -- Koreans, Iranians, Indians, Chinese, Americans, etc. -- that decides to spend a few years in this country. After all, every additional body that comes in takes in as much living space and food.

Neither do we object to tycoons, senators, presidents, and other shady characters who have a propensity to father several dozen children, often by different wives. So long as they can support them, conventional wisdom goes, it's perfectly acceptable. (And we wonder why corruption runs high in our government.)

No, our frowns are reserved for that nebulous group, "the poor." In that broad category are the people who go begging on the streets, who sift through garbage cans, who live day by day from hand-to-mouth; in other words, all those who live desperate lives that we cannot imagine living. After all, they can hardly support one child, much less twelve! Or so we think.

So the original premise, that there are too many Filipinos, isn't entirely accurate. What is really meant is: "There are too many poor Filipinos; their population ought to be controlled." That, of course, sounds politically incorrect, so we don't say it that way.

Just why are poorer families larger than more affluent ones? Is it simply a matter of access to contraceptives and sex education? Certainly both factors will play a part, but have we considered the third possibility that poor couples, for their own reasons, might actually want more children?

By our own calculus, such reasoning is unsound and untenable. Why have children when you can't support them? From an evolutionary standpoint, though, such a strategy makes sense.

In a hostile environment, having more offspring ensures survivability of the species. To be sure, several children may die -- a cruel fact, no doubt -- but having such a wide spread means that the strongest possible genetic combinations result from a pairing.

Have you ever wondered why your old streetside beggars seem so hardy? How, at sixty or seventy years of age, they still manage to pester for you for alms under the heat of the sun? Out of several siblings who may have died, they represent the hardiest of the stock. That's evolution at work. Survival of the fittest.

(In contrast, within a resource-rich environment, couples will tend to have fewer children. Why? To maximize the resources for the offspring that they do have. This is the logic that we in the middle class follow.)

There are other practical reasons as well. In a culture with strong familial bonds, the obligation weighs heavily on the children to care and support for their parents in their twilight years. Therefore, in poorer families, children act as a form of social security, an investment for an uncertain future.

Finally, there are the social norms within the class stratum of the poor, one which bears further investigation and understanding. Do children exclusively belong to one couple, or are they part of a larger communal family? How are children viewed? As status symbols? As commodities?

And what about the sexual mores of the poor? Are they as shy or as liberated about it as we are? When does the sexual exposure begin? How do premarital sex, illegitimacy, polygamy, and incest factor in? Will sex education or values education be sufficient to address these issues?

Implied in the talk of population control is the wish to impose our middle class ideas of responsible parenthood. We cannot imagine how they could possibly want more children and so we blame the Church or their lack of education. We act as if the poor do not have the capacity to make their own decisions following the logic dictated by their circumstances.