The problem of hunger

Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat rather than there being not enough food to eat. Amartya Sen.

Key to understanding the problem of hunger is the sales tax on basic goods (food, etc.) which is the same as with the tax rate of non-basic goods (cosmetics, etc.). Supposing the poor buy from the neighborhood variety store, they will have to pay for the actual price of the goods + the tax + the profit placed on the goods by the store seller. On their PhP100 a day (perhaps even less) budget, this will only buy a kilo of rice (PhP35), a canned food (PhP35), and some biscuits. A kilo of rice is good for two meals for a family of six. The single can of food, good for one meal, will be divided (let’s imagine how) among the six members, same with the biscuits. In short, on this budget, this family of six will in a day eat two meals, one without a main dish just rice. (The rice-only eating pattern among poor families has imbibed on their children the understanding that having all rice for a meal is already adequate food.) We who are eating well know that this intake amount is insufficient to fill up one’s hunger for a given day. And considering that adults in poor families are manual laborers insufficient food intake impacts negatively on muscle maintenance and their overall health (hence ability to work or focus well throughout the day). A nutrition study funded by my former employer found that in dividing up limited food, the younger children receive the least allocation. Nutritional deprivation at preschool age significantly impacts on brain development. It doesn’t help that in school, these children are shouted at by their teachers for being “bobo (stupid)” – no wonder children are scared to go to school. These children could’ve been this country’s geniuses if not for inadequate food (nutritional deprivation).

Supposing we take away the sales tax on the goods. The PhP100 can then buy one more canned food, which means the family’s two meals for the day each has rice and a main dish. This means the world to the poor family, especially to the already nutritionally deprived children. Taxing basic goods in a country that has a significant portion of poor people is the craziest economic policy ever. It makes the poor poorer – hungrier, more malnourished, more stunted, etc. Heck, they can’t even buy an apple (or any fruit) without agonizing over whether an apple is better for the family than one more canned sardines. Besides an apple doesn’t mix well with rice. (In comparison rich folks would agonize over buying a certain Vuitton case to a Porsche, these being basic goods to them.) It makes on the whole an insecure nation because there’s no good future to look forward to (as this future will be filled with many stunted and underdeveloped citizens).

If the government then wanted to generate more tax based income, it should’ve raised the tax base for sin goods and left the basic goods alone at least for the time being (when poverty incidence and under/unemployment are still high). It can be rationalized that the poor should share equally in the cost of infrastructures such as highways and rail transport yet who are the majority of users of these but the working middle class? Poor people don’t ride the MRT. They walk or ride the jeep or bus or they seldom venture beyond their villages. Poor people seldom use the major highways. Instead, they use the dark alleyways and unpaved back roads of their hometowns. Hence the sales tax wasn’t at all a rational pro-poor decision. It is a major barrier to the poor’s access to food and nutrition. It should be reviewed.

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