We must face the uncomfortable truth – our children are the region’s most unhealthy and most educationally challenged with the lowest IQ among their regional peers. They are destined to be the world’s manual laborers unless we act quickly to reverse the trend. How bad is the situation exactly?
Stunted growth occurs when children are deprived of sufficient nutrition, health care and adequate mental stimulation. Children who suffer from stunted growth are victims of delayed brain development and this leads to poor mental performance. Alarmingly, one out of three Filipino children under five years old is a victim of stunted growth today. No surprise, Filipino children are the region’s least intelligent, having an average IQ of only 86 compared to 108 for his Singaporean peer.
As for malnutrition, 19 million Filipino pre-teens are underweight and 5.8 million suffer from wasting or having a low weight-to-height ratio.
Malnutrition is directly correlated to poverty. As many as 2.3 million Filipinos households suffer from severe hunger. Severe hunger occurs when a family goes without food for more than one day. On the other hand, 11.2 million households suffer from moderate hunger, having skipped at least one meal a day.
In principle, hunger and malnutrition should not occur (or should be substantially minimized) since the economy is large enough to afford a monthly household income that is seven times greater than the poverty threshold. Why then is poverty so pervasive in Philippine society?
The culprit is income inequality. There are 20.8 million households in the Philippines for which only 143,000, or .7 percent are considered affluent, with a monthly income of P209,620 or more. According to official statistics, an elite group of 569 families, mostly from the business and political sphere, monopolize the country’s wealth, having a net worth of P1 billion or more (this number is likely understated due to the understatement of SALNs).
So here you have a society where less then one percent monopolize the country’s wealth and only 16 percent are considered middle class. Meanwhile, 84 percent live from hand to mouth.
Income inequality in the Philippines is the most acute in ASEAN and it manifests in hunger, malnutrition and in poor learning aptitudes. As we are painfully aware, Filipino students are dead last in reading, second to the last in math and in the bottom five percent in science among students from 79 countries. Studies show that 15-year-old Filipino students are unable to comprehend lengthy texts, deal with abstract concepts or make distinctions between fact and opinion. They are unable to interpret mathematical equations like comparing prices from different currencies. Only a handful was able to recognize basic scientific principles.
The learning emergency is exacerbated by government’s decision to keep schools closed for two years and having pupils depend on remote learning. Children of poor families without gadgets or those without internet connectivity were left further behind.
On the shoulders of the next administration lie the enormous task of nursing our youth back to health and restoring our educational standards. Hence, it is imperative that we chose a presidential candidate with a well-defined plan for child nutrition and education.
Fundamental is providing the poorest of the poor with the means to eat three meals a day. This is where the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program comes into play. The program must be expanded to put the hungry and unemployed back on their feet. This should be accompanied by the expansion of DepEd’s school-based feeding program to augment juvenile nutrition. The feeding program benefitted only 3.5 million pupils last year. There is a long way to go before ample nutrition is provided to the 33 million malnourished children below 14 years old.
Poverty is at the core of malnutrition. With one of every four Filipino households living in poverty, the next government must work quickly to ease the situation. What we need are jobs, jobs and more jobs. Government cannot do it alone – it must work with the private sector to revive existing industries and develop new ones, rejuvenate agriculture and support MSMEs. It all starts with confidence in the national leadership.
Since the majority of our people live from hand to mouth, government will do well by providing unemployment insurance for recently displaced workers. Never again should we allow our people to live with the uncertainty of not knowing where their next meal will come from.
Budget leakages due to corruption take away the funds that should otherwise go towards easing hunger and alleviating poverty. It is estimated that about P700 billion, or roughly 15.5 percent of the national budget, is misused or embezzled every year. That said, the next administration must be one that leads with honesty and integrity. This, by itself, is half the battle won as more resources can be channeled towards the needs of the marginalized.
As for education, the Philippines spends the least, per student, as compared to our neighbors. Spending on education must be accelerated to at least five percent of GDP for our pupils to catch up. We must invest to widen access to education and course curricula with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM learning) and vocational trades.
The need to overhaul our educational system is urgent. The status quo no longer suffices. Thus, a multi-sectoral council consisting of government (DepEd, CHED), school heads and local government units must be convened to establish a new roadmap towards uplifting Philippine education to Asian levels.
There is a lot to do to fill the gaps in child nutrition and education. It all starts with choosing a leader who recognizes the emergency and who has a sensible plan to address them.
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