Reflections on Savage Inequalities

In remote places in the Philippines, some children walk two or more hours to go to school, barefoot. They bring their flip-flops or shoes with them so they can wear them in class. They do not wear them during their daily four-hour walk to and from school because flip-flops or shoes to them are too precious. They can’t afford for them to be easily be worn off.

When they arrive in class, they are hungry and can’t really concentrate. There isn’t much food at home so they skip breakfast. The teachers are aware of it, so they don’t push the students hard because they know the students’ circumstances. They just do what they can, holding two classes in one classroom—one for one grade level, another for the next, juggling their time assigning different work for the two grades that share classroom space.

The best schools are in Manila. There are few good regional public high schools but the best are in Manila. The kids who are rich and smart also attend these schools together with the best minds from the poor, competing for precious opportunity. Most kids who are better off, though, attend private schools. Even parents from the lower middle class will do their best to earn enough money so that they can afford to send their kids to private schools.

At the Ateneo de Manila, a private school for the privileged run by Jesuits, not only do classrooms in new buildings have their own LCD projector; the campus is constantly undergoing landscape work with costly stones and pebbles accenting winding path walks for students to walk on as they go from one building to another. In this school, the kids can afford to pay for their own airfares for educational exchanges abroad. They also compete and win in international academic competitions.

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At the University of the Philippines School of Urban and Regional Planning, one of my professors expressed the same view as that in the minds of white real estate developers about the land along the Mississippi River in East St. Louis, Illinois. Safir Ahmed, a reporter who  covered East St. Louis, expressed it in these words: “Given the fantastic view of the St. Louis skyline, the land would be immensely valuable if its black residents could be removed.” In the Philippines, the professor was talking about a piece of agricultural land by the banks of the Marikina River. Marikina is one of the smaller cities of metropolitan Manila. The then city mayor converted the land for housing for squatters whom he relocated from various places in the small city. “But it is prime land,” my professor said. He was teaching my class that it could have been used for a purpose that would generate greater economic returns.

What better purpose could there be than have people who don’t own land be given it and the opportunity to pay for it in terms they could afford? Do squatters always have to be relocated outside of the city far from where they derive their income, though meager it may be? Do squatters always have to be removed, like pests, so that those in fortunate circumstances may be given a clean and better view, without taking into consideration whether the poor’s relocation will push them to even more starvation?

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As I was reading “Savage Inequalities,” I felt this reaction: “What’s new?” This is what’s happening in my own country. I guess for the United States, social injustice should be seen as unacceptable because this country, after all, is supposed to be the embodiment of the ideals of equality and justice, at least within itself. Coming from a Third World country who follows the “ideals” of the United States, I’ve been desensitized to the knowledge that there has always been a huge gap between the rich and poor. All incantations of the words “social justice” and “equality” are mere lip service by both politicians and militant groups. It is all just a struggle for political and economic power. Whoever gets the upper hand will forget their words as they become blinded by the privilege that comes in being in a position of power. The phrase “alleviation of poverty” to me is just a figure of speech; pure rhetoric, overused and empty.

August 2009

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