The Middle Class, the Poorest of the Poor, & Solidarity in the Philippines’ Covid Crisis

[Photo Credit: Student Christian Movement of the Philippines; courtesy of Stephanie Ann Puen.]
By Stephanie Ann Puen

Being from the Philippines, a colleague and I discussed the current debate and discourse on the “middle class versus the poor” happening in our country. An open letter from a “middle class” person addressed to the “poorest of the poor” was circulated on Facebook, inevitably causing debate on social media. In the letter, the author addresses the stereotypical “tambay” (a colloquial term evolving from the phrase “stand by”) – referring to the unemployed poor who just loiter outside their homes drinking, gambling or smoking all day. Conditional Cash Transfer programs and dole outs are provided by government efforts, but the stereotype is that the poor waste this money on more drinking, gambling, and smoking rather than using it wisely, and continue to complain to the government about not having a good life. On the other hand, the middle class are assumed to be hardworking who have worked their way out of poverty and are obedient to the rules and government. The open letter implied that the poor are partly to blame for the continuation of the COVID-19 crisis in the Philippines because they are not following the rules by continuing to go out, and reflected some resentment on how the poor do not contribute anything, are given all the help, yet are not improving their lives through hard work.

The idea of solidarity has been raised by commenters on the post–ironically, both to support or admonish the author of the letter. Those who agree use solidarity to further admonish the poor, accusing them of lacking solidarity by going against the stay-at-home orders—after all, everyone is suffering, the poor should be in solidarity with everyone else. The poor are admonished to work harder to lift themselves out of their situation, they can look to all the rags-to-riches stories for example.

On the other hand. others remind the author that a lot of the poor are indeed trying to stay home, but because systemic issues such as contractualization, lack of social safety nets and access to opportunities, they are forced to go out and try to find food or financial assistance, because no work means no food. The GMA News network published a video explaining as much – pointing out that the poor are forced to leave their homes in order to earn money so they can buy supplies for their families. The president has made pronouncements for social amelioration programs and distribution of food packs, but since these are relegated to the local government units, the results have been varied at best, with some families yet to receive any food packs three weeks into the lockdown.  This side of the argument highlights the systemic inequalities that the crisis has further brought to light, and solidarity, therefore, is not about the poor being one with society, but rather being one with the poor.

These two sides of the argument effectively view solidarity as zero-sum, with one party necessarily giving something up in order to balance the common good. In the open letter, both the author and the commenters are, in effect, arguing on who would have to give something up (colloquially phrased as “sino maga-adjust?”). From a theologian’s perspective, however, solidarity is more complex. It is an important core theme in Catholic social thought, and in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II defines solidarity as the commitment to the common good.  In this debate, it seemed that the author of the letter comes from a particular view of community and bayanihan — the heroic Filipino spirit of camaraderie and solidarity. If solidarity is going to be commitment to the common good, as John Paul II writes in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and as what bayanihan entails, then everyone should be following quarantine orders and those who do not are not committed to the common good and therefore not in solidarity with everyone else. This use of solidarity as espoused by the author assumes, however, that everyone suffers equally from this crisis. The truth, though, is that the covid crisis has only exposed how great the classic inequality of suffering between the have and have-nots.

All this has led me to think of the importance of context and what committing to the common good means in light of that context. While this is not to say that the richer will always be giving solidarity, or the poor always on the receiving end, context and justice cannot be left out when discussing how one exercises solidarity, and with whom and for whom is this solidarity done in concrete situations. Justice in Catholic social thought acknowledges the importance of distributing resources according to need, contributing to society according to one’s ability, and respecting interpersonal rights and duties. Solidarity echoes this in its special commitment to the vulnerable in particular and care and concern for each other because we recognize our shared bonds with others. Solidarity is also not forced, but freely done, and the question of what choices does the letter writer have vis-à-vis the poorest of the poor have also becomes part of the question of context and justice, given that the way many businesses and the economic and political system are set up are often not favorable for the many.

The letter writer’s frustrations are understandable, given the stress this pandemic has brought on everyone. The letter is also an opportunity to think more clearly about what solidarity means and who is doing it for who and what in this time, as well as perhaps think about what is exacerbating this pandemic. While I cannot deny that there may be those who are being stubborn about refusing to stay at home, I also cannot deny that many are unable to stay home because they need to find ways to support themselves in this time. Rather than thinking about just individual bad behavior, this letter and this pandemic also hopefully make Filipinos think more about the systemic problems that have made this crisis worse for many of their fellow countrymen.

Stephanie Ann Puen is a PhD candidate in theological & social ethics from the Philippines at Fordham University. She worked in corporate prior to getting her master’s degree at the Ateneo de Manila University in Manila, Philippines, where she also taught theology. Her research interests are in Catholic social thought, business and economics and ethics, design thinking, and theology and pop culture.

The Letter:

An open letter – – “A middle class letter to the poorest of the poor”[1]

Dear: Poorest of the poor,

Ako ay kasama sa tinatawag na middle class. Nagtatrabaho, nagsisikap para mabigyan ng magandang buhay ang pamilya ko. Kabilang din ako sa apektado sa tigil trabaho na dulot ng covid na to. Kasama sa mga pag naubos na ang leave, wala naring sweldo. Kabilang sa mga nakakaltasan ng gobyerno, pero di kasama sa mga mabibigyan ng sustento. Hindi naman ako nagsesentemyento sa gobyerno na unahin muna kayong mga tinatawag na “poorest of the poor” sa panahong ito. Sabagay sabi nga atleast may kinakain pa naman ako Nakakalungkot lang isipin na kayong pinipilit ng gobyernong tulungan, kayo pa ang hindi halos tumutulong sa gobyerno. Kayo pa yung mga nakikitang nasa kalsada na parang walang pandemic, na pag pinagsabihang manatili sa bahay kayo pa yung galit. Kayo yung mga nag iinuman sa labas pero walang maipambili ng bigas. Kayo yung mga nag abot abot na ang edad ng mga anak pero di man lang makabili ng gatas. Kayo yung mga umaasa sa tulong pero kahit kelan di naisip maghanap ng trabaho. Kayo yung mga tambay sa kanto na wala na ngang trabaho nakukuha pang magbisyo Napag isip isip kong kaming mga “middle class” parang kami pa ang mas masunurin. Kami pa yung mga sumusunod sa physical distancing. Kami yung mga inip na inip na sa loob ng bahay, kami yung mga hindi sanay na maging tambay. Kami yung mas umaasang sana matapos natong lahat. Kami yung kinakailangang bumalik sa trabaho para may makaltasan ng tax Kung mababasa mo ito my “poorest of the poor” sana malaman mong umaasa ako na isang “middle class” na gamitin mo sa tama yung matatanggap mong ayuda. Yan kasi yung galing sa pawis kong halos sa trabaho na tumira. Sana tigilan mong kaawaan ang sarili mo, nakakaawa talaga kung hindi ka magbabanat ng buto. Sana maisip mong hindi ko kasalanan kung may maganda akong buhay, pinaghirapan ko yan at hindi yan nakuha sa isang pitik lamang. Sana sumunod ka sa gobyerno. Sana rin ikaw ay magbago. Habang may covid manatili ka sa iyong bahay at Huwag mo sanang hayaang maging mahirap ka habambuhay.

Umaasa, Middle Class

English Translation (credits to John Paul Bolano, Instructor, at the Ateneo de Manila University):

Dear: Poorest of the Poor,

belong to what we call the middle class. I work and I hustle to give my family a comfortable life. I too am affected by the work stoppage because of COVID-19. Likewise, I belong to those who have run out of leave credits, and those who no longer receive their salary. I belong to those taxed by the government yet not given any assistance. I do not take it against the government when it prioritized you, the “poorest of the poor” during these times. As they say, “at least you still have something to eat.”

It is just sad to think that even when the government bends over backward to help you, you do not even lift a finger to help. You loiter on the streets as if no pandemic is happening and have the gall to get angry when admonished to stay at home. You get on with your drinking spree but not have a single penny to buy rice. You give birth to a lot of kids but can’t even afford milk. you always rely on others for help but can’t think of looking for a job. You sit by idly on street corners and convenience stores with no jobs and even maintain vices in your lifestyles.

I just thought that we from the middle class are more obedient. we follow physical distancing. We are dead bored staying in our homes when we cannot stand idly by without any job. We are more eager for this to end soon. We are those who need to return to work soon so we can be taxed again. If you can read this, my “poorest of the poor,” please put to good use the aid you received. Those are from our blood, sweat, and tears, we who spend nearly all of our waking hours at work. Please stop pitying yourselves, you’d be more sorry if you do not work. I hope you understand that it is not my fault if I enjoy the comfortable life I have now, I hustled and worked my ass off to earn this. Please just obey the government. I hope you change. While we’re in this sorry state because of the pandemic, stay at home and do not allow yourself to stay poor until you die.

Hoping for the best, The Middle Class