COVID-19: The Plight Of The Middle Class

Now that the guidelines for social amelioration from the Department Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) are finally in place, it seems like not everyone is happy about it.

Under the program, indigent Filipinos who are severely impacted by the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) will be receiving up to P8,000 social amelioration subsidy as part of the emergency programs by the government to handle the crisis.

Middle Class in the Philippines

“I am reiterating that our most vulnerable citizens, most especially the poorest of the poor, must receive the government’s assistance immediately, kung hindi patay ‘yan sa gutom. Alam ko na we cannot just focus or zero in itong poorest of the poor,” President Rodrigo Duterte said in his address to the public on April 6, 2020.

Despite the good intentions, this was met with objections from some people. One of them was Cavite Governor Jonvic Remulla, who sent an open letter to the President prior to the Monday speech.

In his letter, Remulla appealed the administration to extend the social amelioration subsidy to middle-income families, which the governor said comprised most of his constituents. He highlighted that not only low-income families are also suffering from the financial blow brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As governor, I am respectfully asking that you consider them to be part of the social amelioration program,” Remulla wrote in the note published on his social media pages. “They may not get as much as the poorest of the poor, but please consider their welfare. They are often overlooked. They pay the most taxes. They keep our economy alive. They are mostly law-abiding citizens. They need a break.”

Social amelioration in a nutshell

Under Republic Act No. 11469, or the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act,” low-income families are set to receive a cash subsidy from the government. The amount they will get can range between P5,000 and P8,000 depending on the prevailing minimum wage rates in the region.

Under the social amelioration program of the DSWD, beneficiaries under the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) will get additional funds so that their subsidy for two months will reach the amount prescribed by the government for the COVID-19 crisis.

For instance, a poverty-stricken family in Metro Manila will get P1,350 for the month of April to cover health, nutrition, and rice subsidies. The social amelioration program for Metro Manila is at P8,000—meaning they will get additional P6,750 this April to get the total amount prescribed by the administration.

Aside from the families identified by the DSWD as eligible for the cash aid, some sectors who can also apply for cash aid are the following:

  • Senior citizens
  • Persons with disability
  • Pregnant and lactating women
  • Solo parents
  • Overseas Filipinos in distress
  • Indigenous peoples
  • Underprivileged sector and homeless citiznes
  • Employees who are under no-work-no-pay scheme (job-order or contract-of-service workers only)
  • Farm workers/fisherfolk
  • Sub-minimum wage earners
  • Sari-sari store owners
  • Members of the informal economy (PUV drivers, household help, contractual workers, street food vendors, etc.)

While some members of middle-income families may fall into one or more of these categories, they are still not eligible to receive cash from the government. For instance, senior citizens receiving pension and formal sector workers on forced leave are not included.

According to Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, around 18 million families in the country, which are considered low-income households, are the only ones who will get social amelioration from the government.

The middle-class argument

Without going into politics or voter pandering, why are people arguing for the middle class to be included in the government’s social programs? They are, after all, considered to be the economy’s workhorse. Since Governor Remulla’s letter is well-crafted, let’s just take all the points supporting his argument for it, or at least based on his observations on the middle class of his constituency:

  • Buying a house on mortgage
  • Sending their children through college
  • Having their first car or motorcycle on a five-year installment basis
  • Paying the most taxes
  • Keeping the economy alive

Other arguments for looking after the middle-class welfare are far more toxic and can be considered an attack to the less privileged. Without going into specifics, those who feel disgruntled called the sectors to get emergency subsidy names and generalizing traits: they’re members of the society who do not work hard enough to get out of poverty.

According to detractors of the alleviating policies for the poor during COVID-19, these qualities don’t make them deserving of help. They want the government to instead focus on the actual members of the society who pay their fair share.

The rule of law

The government prioritizing the welfare of the poor is deeply embedded in the country’s DNA, particularly in its principles under the constitution.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution, which serves as the cornerstone of all policies by the government, states the following under Article II, which is the Declaration of Principles and Statement Policies:

Section 9. The State shall promote a just and dynamic social order that will ensure the prosperity and independence of the nation and free the people from poverty through policies that provide adequate social services, promote full employment, a rising standard of living, and an improved quality of life for all.

Section 10. The State shall promote social justice in all phases of national development.

Section 9, which focuses on “just and dynamic social order,” can only be achieved by providing sufficient social services, promoting employment and opportunities for those who need it, creating ways to increase standard of living for everyone, and improving quality of life for all.

For Section 10, the government must give preferential treatment through its laws to the less fortunate members of the society such as the poor, uneducated, underprivileged, and disabled.

What does this tell us? It is deeply ingrained in the supreme law of the land that taking care of the needy and the poor is part of the government’s mandates, as they are the more vulnerable members of the society.

Although the law applies to every single Filipino regardless of socioeconomic status, we must help the ones who are in dire need through policies that will address their needs to help them get out of poverty.

COVID-19 measures for the middle class

Going back to the most important question: Is the government doing something for middle-income families?

Actually, you might be surprised that the answer is yes. It may not be the same as getting up to P8,000 as emergency subsidy, but these measures somehow alleviate the plight of the middle class.

First, formal sector workers who are hit by the “no-work-no-pay” scheme will get a P5,000 subsidy from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE). The payout will be given to affected workers through their company payroll and will arrive within the month.

For those who are laid off from their jobs, being a member of the Social Security System (SSS) entitles them to an unemployment benefit that will allow them to claim up to P11,000 depending on their contributions. People can avail this within the year they lost their jobs.

Private businesses are also prohibited from terminating their employees due to ECQ guidelines. As for government employees, they are bound to receive their salaries even if work is suspended in almost all government offices.

Meanwhile, for those who have outstanding loans—including mortgages, personal loan, and credit card debt—the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) already issued a 30-day grace period for all payments during the COVID-19 crisis. Interests and other penalties will also be waived for this period. This applies to credit cards, personal loans, SME loans, as well as people with multiple outstanding loans.

Deadline for the filing of income tax returns have also been moved by a month from the original April 15 deadline by the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR). This will make people who cannot pay their taxes immune from penalties due to the inability to settle their government dues during ECQ.

ACT-CIS Party-List Representative Niña Taduran has a different idea: Instead of giving them cash aid during COVID-19, middle-income households should just get the same amount removed from their taxes. This allows them to have a bigger take-home pay during the crisis, eliminating the need for them to be part of the DSWD social amelioration program.

Another call from the House of Representatives is to include SSS pensioners to be part of the government aid. Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate said that senior citizens who receive around P2,000 per month as SSS pension should also be considered vulnerable during this time of need.

Stuck in the middle

It is true that the middle class plays a significant role in keeping the wheels of commerce turning. However, in times like these, lower income segments are dealt with far worse cards and are barely getting any support in a time of crisis.

In the show Louie, Louie CK’s eponymous character said this: The only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have as much as them.

What’s your take on this?