Education, inequality, poverty – a paradox in the Philippines

Photo: By LCDR Eric J. Hawn

Filipinos have high literacy rates and most, if not all can speak and read English. Despite this, however, poverty levels in the Philippines remain disproportionately high.

By John Pennington

Education is for many an escape route away from poverty. In the Philippines, however, where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, that clearly isn’t the case. It is a route that millions find blocked.


In the 13th most populous country in the world, English is an official language and taught at schools, although hundreds of local dialects are spoken across the nation of more than 7,500 islands.

Nevertheless, the Philippines’ literacy rate, according to 2010 figures, was 97.5%, ahead of other ASEAN nations. In the 2015 figures, Philippines was placed just below Singapore.

The World Economic Forum’s 2015 Human Capital Index ranked only Singapore (24th in the world) above the Philippines (46th) among ASEAN nations for skills and education.

The education system is unified but fractured

The Filipino education system has been heavily influenced by the US, which is a legacy of its time under American control. Many Filipino university lecturers completed their training in the States.

Although primary school enrolment reached 100% in the 1970s, and today in Manila almost all primary students complete school, there are huge regional variations. In some areas, less than 30% of students finish school.

In 2013, 19.2% of survey respondents said, “insufficient family income” was their main reason for absence from school. While some areas of the Philippines benefit from excellent education facilities and teaching, others – particularly rural areas – do not.

Efforts to improve the education system are falling short

The Kindergarten Act of 2012 and the Enhanced Basic Education Act of 2013 extended formal education from 10 to 13 years in a bid to lower dropout rates and better prepare students for further education or training. They have not worked. Dropout rates continue to rise.

Until 1987, when the constitution was revised, English was the language of instruction. English and Filipino are now the official languages although English still dominates due to a shortage of Filipino-language materials and Filipino-speaking teachers.

While the education budget rose in recent years, actual spending dropped, well below the United Nations’ recommendation that countries spend no less than 6% of their global domestic product (GDP) on education.

Source: Knoema

As a result, the education system has been criticised for failing to give Filipino children the best possible start. Poor performances in national tests were linked to undernutrition and inadequate teaching. According to the World Bank, the Philippines spent P6,670 (US$138) per student per year in 2009, well below Thailand (P41,234/US$853) and Singapore (P87,012/US$1,800).

Poverty in the Philippines is disproportionately high

Despite statistics on skills and education putting them in the top quarter of countries worldwide, the percentage of Filipinos that live below the poverty line compares poorly with fellow ASEAN countries, as the graph below shows.

The reasons for continued widespread poverty in the Philippines are many and varied. Its roots can be traced back to the destruction and upheaval caused by the Second World War, while subsequent policies of Presidents Ramon Magsaysay, Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Arroyo did not improve conditions for the poorest Filipinos and widened the income equality gap.

The percentage of the population living below the poverty line is decreasing, but only slowly. In some areas, such as Mindanao, the figure stands at more than 30%.

The Filipino economy is growing, but that growth is not being felt by those on the lowest incomes. Some of this can be attributed to the country’s rapid population growth. The country simply does not have enough money to take enough people out of poverty. An income tax rate of 32% puts pressure on those who earn precious little to start with.

In Manila, for example, where figures for school completion rates are higher than anywhere else, there are far fewer people living below the poverty line, showing a direct correlation between education and living conditions. At the other extreme, in the Zamboanga-ARMM region, where 50% of inhabitants were living in poverty in 2012, dropout rates are reportedly as high as 90%.

Widespread corruption suffocates the poor

Widespread corruption in Filipino politics and business prevents social mobility and growth. Power is concentrated among powerful families and closely connected individuals, offering the poor little chance to better themselves or even start businesses.

“There’s some sense to the argument that we’ve never had a real democracy because only a few have controlled economic power,” Louie Montemar, a political science professor at Manila’s De La Sar University, said. “The country dances to the tune of the tiny elite.”

Pope Francis recently wrote, “But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence…to all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits.”

Why does a nation of proud Christians, 86% of whom are Roman Catholic, continue to ignore the message the leader of their church is sending?

Income inequality correlates with educational inequality

In the Philippines, unemployment is high, inflation is high and there is huge income inequality. A 2009 report showed that the poorest 20% of the population had only 4.45% of the national income.

The income disparity between the rich and poor has been described as, “the highest in Asia” and in 2014, Forbes reported that the wealthiest families were worth around US$72.4 billion.

One of the key findings of a paper prepared by National Statistical Coordination Board Secretary General Jose Ramon Albert directly correlated income equality with educational inequality. “Education correlates with living standards: practically 19 out of 20 poor persons in 2009 belong to households where the heads have little or no schooling. Lack of education of the household head limits earning potentials of the household,” he wrote.

The education system is far from perfect

A more critical eye needs to be cast on the Filipino education system. At its best, it works very well; at its worst, it fails those who need it most.

More resources are desperately needed. They need to be channelled into the poorest areas. Low education and skill levels of the poor already hinder the Philippines’ economic growth capacity. Corruption means the status quo is maintained.

As the population continues to grow, and government spending on education continually falls short, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. Inevitably, literacy rates and other measures of education standards will fall as more people are sucked into poverty.

Just how far do they need to plummet before the government acts?

About the Author

John Pennington
John Pennington is an English freelance writer and a self-published author. He graduated from the University of Warwick with a bachelor’s degree in French and History in 2006. After spending time as a sports journalist, he now writes about politics, history and social affairs.