Like the ilustrados of the 1800s, the middle class is emerging as a potent force in the Philippines’ social transformation.
That’s the role outlined to the Class of 2013 by Sen. Edgardo Angara in an address on Sunday at the University of the Philippines general commencement exercises in Diliman, Quezon City.
The former president of the UP System told the graduates, who he said belonged mostly to this social group, that he expected them to moderate the elite’s “vested interest” as the country was entering a “demographic sweet spot” with more people of working age compared to children and dependent elderly in less than a decade.
Today’s middle class, like the ilustrados of the 1800s, “is our country’s greatest source of talent and potential,” Angara said.
“A strong middle class is the backbone of civil society … (it) is the voice of reason that moderates vested interests, the force of change that compels societies to invest in their own future,” said the outgoing senator.
But he also repeated warnings that the middle class might be a “vanishing” breed unless the gap between rich and poor was narrowed down.
The current crop of college graduates enters the real world just as the Philippines becomes part of an integrated Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Economic Community that merges its 10 members into a single market, said Angara, who served four terms in the Senate.
This bloc, he said, would serve as a production base that would promote the free flow of goods, services, investment, capital and labor.
The Asean community would also have a market of 600 million people and a collective gross domestic product of nearly $2 trillion, he added.
The senator said this regional economy would be “the ninth largest in the world—a force to reckon with in global political, economic, diplomatic and cultural competition.”
But while Filipinos will find it easier to find work in Singapore or Malaysia when the new setup begins in 2015, “so will Indonesians and Vietnamese,” he noted.
Still, the years 2015 to 2050 would coincide with the emergence of a “demographic sweet spot (with) a proportionally large working-age population and fewer children and the elderly dependent on every working Filipino,” Angara said.
He said that taking advantage of this situation would allow the Philippines “to finance our own growth from our people’s own savings, without having to levy new taxes or borrow from other nations’ savings. We can build schools and hospitals, roads and bridges from our own pockets—investments for the people, by the people.”
But Angara warned that the opportunity would “not be unique” to the region.
“From now until 2070, various countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean will also enter their individual demographic windows. This is the developing world’s chance—our chance—to catch up with the developed nations.”
So much depends on this generation of graduates expected to be at the helm by the time this golden age takes place, he said.
“Whether we indeed make that great leap forward—whether we indeed become more competitive in Asean and in the world—depends on whether we build and expand the likes of you, an enlightened middle class.”
Problem is, Angara said, individuals are born into “inequalities” that have “measurable impacts” that eventually determine their future.
Angara quoted the Human Development Report indicating that 15.2 percent of “individual potential is lost because of inequality in life expectancy at birth.”
“From inequality in education, the loss is 13.5 percent; and from inequality in income, the loss is 30 percent,” he added.
Another study, he said, “suggests that a Filipino family’s economic status—more than any other factor—determines, over 90 percent of the time, whether a child gets fair access to primary and secondary education.”
Angara said the situation could be addressed by promoting equal access to development opportunities, providing everyone the opportunity to develop and use talents and skills productively, and fostering broad-based growth that will not only lift people from poverty “but—more importantly—give them lives of meaning and dignity.”
He said the middle class “will, undoubtedly, grow significantly in numbers in coming decades.”
“Whether these new ilustrados will be aware of their identity and conscious of their social role is an entirely different matter,” he said.
Angara echoed warnings that “the Filipino middle class is vanishing.”
Global inequality has been rising for the past 30 years as proven by reports of elite groups in various countries getting richer and enjoying combined incomes equal to those of most other citizens.
In the Philippines, Angara said the wealth of the 40 richest families in 2012 “grew by an amount equivalent to 76.5 percent of the growth in our (gross domestic product). And there are very few of these wealthy families: They number less than one in every 100 of us.”
As the ranks of the Filipino poor reach 80 in every 100 families, Angara said three of the remaining 20 families considered as middle class slide down into poverty every year.
“The absolute number of the middle class may seem enormous, especially in developing Asia—1.9 billion as of 2008. But this number only serves to mask their vulnerability,” he pointed out.
“If you live just above the poverty threshold, a single stroke of fate—one accident, calamity, or crisis can send you falling through the cracks,” the senator warned.
Angara also noted that the middle class had been instrumental in leading protests around the world.
“I tell you these things not to dampen the celebratory mood you have every right to feel. However, I know your eyes are already open to the real world. You will not be deceived by facile encouragement,” he explained.
Angara said the National Statistical Office had defined measurements of the middle class as follows:
— Those with an annual family income of from P282,000 to P2.296 million.
— Families whose heads have a college degree.
— Those who own a house and lot.
— Those whose homes have strong roofing materials.
— Those who own an oven, an air-conditioning unit and a vehicle.