For middle class families in the Philippines today, the dizzying pace by which food prices soar is not just something to read about in newspapers with the disinterest of the unaffected. It isn’t just the marginal families who are reeling; everyone is.
While broadcast and print media have been keen on monitoring how the unprecedented rise in the price of basic commodities has led to various degrees of hunger and malnutrition among the poor, it appears that the hardships being suffered by other segments of the population are not controversial — and, ergo, not profitable — enough to earn much media mileage. Apart from the occasional random interviews of people on the street, there is little interest in the plight of the middle classes except how many have given up the daily use of their private vehicles in favor of public transportation in response to the jaw-dropping prices of gasoline and diesel. But it goes more deeply than that.
Eighteen years ago, during the administration of Cory Aquino when the country was being rocked by one attempted coup d’etat after another, five thousand pesos (P5,000.00) could fill up a small room with supermarket stuff. I know, I remember distinctly, because in 1990 when a friend arranged a blind date between me and the man whom I would marry a year later, I had to beg off because my mother insisted that I accompany her to the supermarket. With the frequency of coup d’etats, she thought it smart to shop for canned food and other supplies that could last us for at least six months. And so we did. The bill was a little over P5,000.00 and what we brought home filled the car — backseat included — and, after unloading, filled the entire space under the stairs — a space equivalent to a small room or a large pantry. What does P5,000.00 buy these days? Six to seven grocery bags of food stuff and household supplies.
In 2003 when I decided to quit lawyering and Speedy became the sole breadwinner of the family, a kilo of pork shoulder cost ninety pesos. Vegetables were cheap and we lived with a weekly food budget of five hundred pesos. Even before the rice crisis hit early this year, a kilo of pork rump already cost more than twice as much and vegetables were hardly cheap. Today, it isn’t just the price of agricultural products that seem to go up non-stop. Everything has — from canned milk to laundry detergent to bath soap to toilet paper. Five hundred pesos won’t last two days in a household of six.
Five hundred pesos. That’s about eleven dollars (US$11) based on the current exchange rate. For those living in the First World, a daily food budget of US$11 might sound more than reasonable but in a country where middle management professionals earn an average of a thousand dollars (US$1,000.00) — before taxes — per month, it isn’t easy. The Philippines has the second highest electric power rates in Southeast Asia. The cost of education is jaw-dropping. Sam will start college next school year and one of the schools she is considering is the College of St. Benilde. The tuition? Forty-five thousand pesos (P45,000.00) or a thousand dollars per trimester — trimester! And that excludes books, daily transportation and food, and, if necessary, cost of board and lodging somewhere near the school. You know how much my parents paid for my law school during the 1980s? Around seven hundred pesos (P700.00) per semester.
Where all this leads to, I do not know. I’m wondering if there will be a re-classification of socio-economic brackets as the middle class grows smaller and smaller while the poor continue to swell everyday. Those who belong in the middle class today might, in a decade, find themselves re-classified as marginal families. Meanwhile, the percentage of wealthy people remains the same — ten percent of the population. And that figure has hardly changed in the last four hundred years.