By FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JEJOMAR C. BINAY
Jejomar C. Binay
Former Vice President
The government’s decision to extend cash assistance for poor families in Metro Manila is a timely and appropriate response to mitigate the impact of the extended lockdown. The attendant controversy – and widespread indignation at the local level – arises from two issues: the limited number of beneficiaries, and the absence thus far of similar mitigation programs for the middle class.
When the P200-billion cash aid program was unveiled last week, government officials proclaimed that it would benefit poor households in Metro Manila and Luzon. The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) was designated as the main agency in charge of disbursement, exercising “full control and supervision over the distribution” of the funds, according to a Cabinet official. This is to “ensure that only targeted beneficiary-families will receive the government subsidies.”
Local government units will only provide assistance in distributing the cash aid – ranging from P5,000 to P8,000 – under the supervision of the Department of Interior and Local Government. The intent was to take away from local officials the discretion in choosing the beneficiaries.
As a requirement, poor households would have to register by filling up a form to be distributed “house to house” by the barangays. It was not clearly impressed on the form recipients that the forms would still be evaluated by the DSWD to determine the “rightful” beneficiaries. Barangay officials would also learn belatedly that the DSWD has set a limit on the number of forms to be distributed per barangay. In short, not all poor households will receive forms, contrary to earlier assertions of some government officials. As a result, some barangay leaders found themselves at the receiving end of their constituents’ anger. It was reported that a barangay chairman was even threatened with a bolo by an irate constituent.
The confusion, frustration, and resentment over the cash aid program for the poor is unfortunately yet another example of a government response still lacking coherence, clarity, and focus almost a month after a Luzon-wide lockdown was declared to contain the spread of the COVID-19 disease. Like other government interventions, the announcement came before clear guidelines were drawn up and cascaded to the implementors. It was an example of a program that was driven by PR.
The second issue concerns the middle class, and whether they too should receive some form of aid from the government. Described by a government official as “can-affords,” the middle class had been wrongly lumped together with the affluent who should not see themselves as entitled to government aid. The problem with such a dismissive attitude is that it fails to consider the stratification of the country’s middle class. If defined by income, the middle class covers anyone earning more than the P10,481 a month poverty threshold. This is a wide and disparate grouping that includes government workers, private sector employees, BPO agents, and middle level executives. While they may have saved up for the crisis, their savings have obviously dwindled to a pittance at this point. They are also in need of government aid.
Belatedly, ranking officials have had a change of heart in this position on middle class assistance. Observers surmise that the change could have been driven more by politics than compassion. Pollsters categorize the Philippine middle class as Economic Class D, accounting for over 70 percent of the electorate. It is a potent and articulate political base that cannot be ignored.
But all these interventions translate into costs. Senior government officials have of late been making bleak projections on the impact of a prolonged crisis on the economy and on government resources. A warning has been raised that a prolonged crisis could force government to sell off public assets as a way to raise badly needed funds.
But it need not come to that point. Note that some government officials have floated that a total of P644 billion in funds can be tapped by crisis managers, consisting of proceeds from the sale of government securities, remittances of Government Owned and Controlled Corporations (GOCCs), and unutilized and unreleased funds. Government may also consider realigning the “pork barrel” allocations of the members of Congress to build up the crisis response funds, and even the budget for its Build, Build, Build infrastructure development program.
The crisis is a test of creativity, efficiency, and clear thinking on the part of government officials. But equally important is compassion that should be extended to all those affected by the lockdown, regardless of the politics.
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