Conditional cash transfer helps Pinoys beat poverty trap

Posted at 07/31/10 4:41 AM

MANILA, Philippines - It is blazing hot inside the dilapidated home of 36-year-old Rosely  Salazar, a single mother of 5 girls.

Coincidentally, her small shanty is situated on Kalye Impierno – literally “Hell Street” –  which earned its name not because of its skyrocketing temperatures during summer but because a crime spree in the late 1960s killed dozens of people in the area.

Crime might have gone down since then but grinding poverty remains deeply rooted in this squatters’ colony in San Roque, Navotas City, which is a stone’s throw away from the local  fish port.

According to Salazar, being poor is a fact of life that she has learned to accept and expect  for her 5 children. A manicurist by trade, Salazar sometimes makes about P100 to P150 (about  $2-$3) a day by going house to house and offering her services.

Some days, she comes home empty-handed even after visiting her regular customers.

“Sana hindi sila matulad sa akin pero nandun na iyon (I hope they don’t turn out like me but that’s a given),” she says, while looking at her children ages 16,14,9, 8 and 5.

She adds: “Even if they finish high school, a college degree is impossible.”

Life for Salazar wasn’t always as hard, at least until a few years ago. She says her husband  used to earn P200 (about $4.30) a day until he died of illness 5 years ago. She also used to earn the same amount sewing clothes until her sewing machine broke down and she had no money to have it fixed.

“There were days when we literally had nothing to eat except a little rice with patis (fish  sauce). Some days, we didn’t eat at all,” she recounts.

Nowadays, Salazar says she breathes a little easier if only because all her kids are now  going to school. Her eldest, Kishiena, goes to a local community college; the second eldest,  Roshiel, is in 2nd year high school, while the next two girls, Rose Ann and April Joy, are  both in Grade 3.

The youngest, Sharmaine, just started kindergarten classes last June.

“They like to go to school and learn,” says the shy but proud mother. “Even if they have no  allowance for the day, they still go.”

A life of penury

Salazar’s family is just one of 700,000 households that have benefited from the Philippine government’s conditional cash transfer program called the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program or 4P.

Launched in 2008, the program gives conditional cash grants to indigent families who have  kids ages 14 years old and below. A P500 monthly cash grant is given for health and  nutrition expenses while P300 monthly cash grant is given per child for educational  expenses.

Only a maximum of 3 children per household are allowed to receive stipends, for a maximum total of P1,400 (about $30.76) a month for a household with at least 3 children. In return, beneficiaries are required to send their children to school, and the mothers must go for regular prenatal or postnatal care.

How much difference does P1,400 make for a starving family of 6?

According to Simon Sedavia, 4Ps information officer for Metro Manila, the P1,400 a month  could give impoverished families “a fighting chance to escape a life of penury.”

A 2006 Family Income and Expenditure Survey (FIES) by the National Statistics Office shows that at least 33% of the country’s population, a total of 27 million Filipinos, are poor.

A separate April 2010 study conducted by senior research fellow Rosario Manasan of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), meanwhile, states that the Philippines has high incidence of chronic poverty, “with 71% of poor households chronically poor.”

Dr. Arsenio Balisacan of the University of the Philippines School of Economics says external shocks such as the global economic crisis and a series of powerful typhoons also affected poverty incidence in the country in recent years.

His study, titled Tackling Poverty and Social Impacts: Philippine Response to the Global  Economic Crisis, showed that external factors led to a steep drop in gross domestic product (GDP) growth, from 7.1% in 2007 to 3.8% in 2009.

Balisacan says poverty incidence in the country rose by 1.6 percentage points after mean income dropped by 2.1% in 2009. He says the global economic crisis “may have cut the gains  in reducing poverty over the past 3 years by pushing nearly 2 million more Filipinos to  poverty.”

Targeting the poor

Sedavia says the Pantawid Program specifically addresses the poverty situation through early intervention and investment in the education and well-being of children in poor families.

He says that when the program was launched in 2007, a lot of poor families did not want to participate in the poverty surveys of the National Household Targeting System for Poverty  Reduction (NHTS-PR) because they saw no benefit to it.

Eligibility for the program was determined on several factors such as inclusion in the poorest municipalities from the 20 poorest provinces in the country and the results of interviews by social workers from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

The beneficiaries were also screened via a Proxy Means Test, which calculates a family’s  poverty level based on type of construction materials used for their house, appliances owned, and if they have running water, electricity and toilets.

Sedavia says beneficiaries are also required to follow a set of rules to remain eligible for  the cash grants.

Under the program, pregnant women who receive the conditional cash transfers must get  pre-natal and post-natal care, and the child birth must be attended by a skilled or trained  person.

Children who are 0-5 years old must get regular health check-ups and vaccinations, while children 6-14 must attend 85% of their classes every month.

Parents of the children are also required to attend monthly “family development seminars,” which are conducted by the DSWD.

“The cash transfers have an immediate impact on the families. It’s not a dole-out because there are very strict rules for the families if they want to continue to receive the  grants,” he notes.

Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman says the DSWD also screens potential sites for the conditional cash grant programs to ensure that the needed social infrastructure is in place. She says target communities must be near schools and health centers, and should have basic  services such as electricity and potable water.

“We also have to make sure that we have teachers and health workers near the community who  will cooperate with the DSWD,” she says, noting that school attendance of the children-beneficiaries is regularly monitored by social workers.

Healthier, brainier kids

Sedavia says the impact of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program can usually be seen among  the children-beneficiaries. “They don’t look like street kids anymore. They go to school and eat better,” he says.

An April 2010 PIDS study shows that the program has affected school attendance rate of 7% of  total number of poor households nationwide or 18% of total number of poor households in the target provinces.

“On the other hand, the program could increase the school attendance of the poorest quintile from 85% to 89.6% once current levels are increased to 1 million households by the end of the year,” the study says.

Soliman says the 4P has led to more consistency and less absenteeism for the children-beneficiaries who go to school.

She also says the children-beneficiaries have become healthier because of better food and the immunization they get from health centers.

In Manay, Davao Oriental, the conditional cash transfer program is credited for a 50% increase in the number of people getting health services in their center.

Barangay health worker Mariwelda Sabilliano says the number of regular visitors to Manay health clinics rose from 265 people in 2008 to 503 in 2009. “They visit health centers  voluntarily and we don’t have to remind them anymore of their appointments,” she says in a report from the 4P office.

Unexpected benefits

Marcevilla Aquino, a mother of 4 in Navotas, says the program also equipped her in how to budget her money every month while trying to pay off a huge debt.

With the P1,100 cash grant acting as a supplement to her monthly budget, she says she is slowly paying off her debt while allowing her to send her 4 kids to school.

“4P allowed me to put my 19-year-old daughter to school. She’s not part of the program but the extra money is helpful in meeting some of our daily needs,” she says.

Another 4P beneficiary, Maricel Dacanay, says the monthly development seminars are also helpful in building up the confidence of the women.

“Some of them don’t even know how to read or write after dropping out of grade school.  Through the seminars, we are able to share our knowledge with each other and learn values and leadership skills,” she says.

Sedavia says the seminars also bring unexpected benefits to the families. He says sessions on the rights of women and children as provided for under Republic Act No. 9262 led to cases of women-beneficiaries “hauling their husbands to jail for beating them up.”

He says some of the women have also stopped beating their kids “because they didn’t know  before that their children have rights, too.”

2.6 million households under 4P

Soliman says the conditional cash transfer program is a necessary first step in helping poor families break out of the cycle of chronic poverty.

She says the NHTS-PR surveys allowed government to identify 9 million of the country poorest  households, according to the 2006 Family Income and Expenditure Survey.

“We are now working on a system that will tell us who among the 9 million are most in need of assistance. The same data can be used in identifying recipients for Philhealth and other programs of DSWD,” she says.

Soliman says DSWD is expanding the conditional cash transfer program to benefit at least 2.6  million households by the end of 2011, at an estimated cost of P29 billion.

She says her department is also strengthening a self-employment assistance program and a capacity building program that gives livelihood grants to communities. This, she says, will  ensure that beneficiaries would find a way to ensure their livelihoods once they are out of  the

Soliman rejects suggestions that the conditional cash transfer program is a cash drain for  the new administration of President Benigno Aquino III. She also rejects the notion that only future presidents would benefit from the seeds planted by 4P.

“The only beneficiary of this program is the poor. It should not be dependent on whoever is sitting in government, or if it will benefit the current administration. The lasting  beneficiary should always be the Filipino people. There should be a new formula for sustainable development that will break the cycle of poverty among Filipino families,” she  says.