By Johannes L. Chua

Illustration by Ariana Maralit

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If there’s a word to describe the social amelioration program or SAP, it would be “unprecedented.” There was never a time in Philippine history when a fund as big as P100 billion—imagine the value of 100,000 new cars or 2.5 million units of the latest iPhone—was distributed throughout the country within a short period of time, not even after the Luzon earthquake in 1990, the eruption of Pinatubo, or the onslaught of Typhoon Yolanda.

SAP, in its basic essence, is the government’s way to help low-income families “survive” the quarantine months. Government was “forced” to do it, as it also “demanded” people to stop their own economic activities and livelihood. According to the latest data (May 17) from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), 17.3 million families received the cash aid, which ranged from P5,000 to P8,000 depending on the locality.

The National Capital Region (NCR) got the bulk of the SAP pie at P12.46 billion, with Quezon City (being the largest and most populated) getting P3 billion.

With a fund that big, it was bound to have challenges that were enormous as well. With the lack of a national system to identify households who are rightful beneficiaries, news and social media were filled with confusion about qualification guidelines, proliferation of fake forms, and outright corruption. The distribution of the SAP cash was also marred by delays, lack of social distancing, and shouting matches. And the hard part, a lot of deserving families were left out of SAP.

To this day, the social media accounts of local government units (LGUs) such as Las Piñas, Quezon City, Parañaque, etc. have comments (regardless of the post) about SAP, asking mayors where their ayuda is, pleading for their LGU to have awa (pity) on them, and telling netizens their stories of woe and hunger.

There’s another problem here. Mayors were not authorized to just distribute the cash. A list of beneficiaries is verified by the local DSWD office, then funds are channeled to the barangay for distribution, then there is a masterlist to follow, so on and so forth. It even took three extensions of the deadline for LGUs to fully distribute the cash. Then, LGUs have to fully declare the beneficiaries and liquidate the fund. And did I mention that there is a second tranche of SAP?

The SAP has good intentions, as government needs a bandaid solution to the impending hunger brought about by the economic standstill. Not all good intentions, however, are “good” when looking at macro level.

No to dole outs

My course in college was economics. I didn’t understand anything but the only thing I remembered was about the role of the government in providing economic stimulus, and a massive dole out was not part of it.

I asked a former economics professor (who refused to be identified as he might be bashed) about SAP and its economic implications.

“Sad to say, SAP is a form of dole out that is not economically viable in the long run. It may, for the meantime and temporarily, help move the economy by giving people the money to buy what they immediately need (aka to calm the masses), but what’s next after that? Another dole out?” he asks. “It can’t go on forever.”

By the looks of it, the government is not awash with cash, and another round of borrowing is looming ahead (bringing the national debt to our great-grandchildren). Budgets for other projects that will spur economic activities and bring employment (such as infrastructure or investments) are being realigned to efforts battling Covid-19. The economic forecasts are so dire that any gains from past years are projected to be wiped out.

“I can’t blame the government for pursuing (SAP). This is, after all, an extraordinary time. A nemesis as microscopic as this virus is, its economic impact is enormous and will redound for years and generations to come,” he says. “The devastation from this pandemic will not only be seen in poorer families, but will also be reflected in fewer bridges, shorter roads, and lesser exports.”

Continuous dole outs, he says, have a negative impact, especially on low-income populations as it tends to “create a sense of dependency.” “SAP is not a solution, it is only a temporary relief. What needs to be addressed is the root cause of poverty, inequality, and the dearth of opportunities,” he explains.

The professor also notes that SAP is not only an economic issue, but a social issue as well.

“We also need to realize that majority of taxpayers are middle-class earners. The SAP, as it was designed, tends to only help those among the poorest of the poor. There will be issues of disenfranchisement here.”

The professor, however, sees a “good” result, only if the government gets its act together. “For one, I can see that finally, it realized the importance of a national ID system because of the SAP distribution debacle. There’s also the push for digital payments, online commerce, and e-businesses. This pandemic will force us to face our future. We can’t go back to the way things were before.”

But this is all I’m waiting for

Ayuda, which some translates as “help,” is contextually inept as ayuda is deeper, a help requested in dire situations. And for a lot of Filipinos, that time has come.

SAP, generally, is ayuda for low-income families, something to hold on to (like a lifejacket) in a sea of uncertainty. The efficiency of SAP distribution is now tied to the political fortunes of mayors and barangay captains. There were a lot of “di na namin kayo iboboto (we will not vote for you)” in social media posts, condemning the slow SAP fund distribution.

Larry Cayetano, 65, a resident of Barangay Guadalupe Nuevo in Makati City, was one of the early recipients of the P8,000 SAP aid. Despite the “no-work-no-pay” from his part-time job at a restobar, he feels lucky and “content” during the quarantine.

“With the money, I used the 1,000 to purchase a sack of rice, then another 2,000 to buy a month’s worth of food and medicines. The rest I paid debts, rent, utilities, and cellphone load,” says Larry in Filipino. A widower, he lives with his son who works in a pharmacy. As a Makati resident, relief packs regularly came their way. They also received a P5,000 assistance from the city hall via a mobile transaction. “Thank God, I have nothing to worry about, except the virus as I’m a senior citizen already.”

If Larry was having a blissful time, it was the worst of times for Rolando Obias, 52, from Barangay Payatas in Quezon City. A barber, he did not get any financial assistance from his employer or from the Labor Department.

“It was a nightmare to line up for almost eight hours!” Rolando says in Filipino. His barangay is one of the most densely populated in the country, with a high number of low-income households. “It was very chaotic. People were pushing one another. There was no social distancing. I was in line before lunch, I came home after dinner!”

He says part of the problem, aside from the huge number of beneficiaries, was the lack of coordination and confusing instructions. He saw how hard it was for barangay officials and those from the DSWD to rein in the crowd as there were so many questions, especially from those who were not qualified for the SAP (or were not in the masterlist), but insisted to be included in the payouts.

“There were many heated arguments and shouting. There were crying and fainting. A man even threw a plastic chair. Sometimes, the police would intervene. But I did not move in my place. I waited in line even under the heat because I desperately needed the SAP money. It was all I had for my family. I have three young daughters,” Rolando says. Once the money was on his hands, he felt a wave of relief, like a “heavy stone was lifted off my shoulders.”

“I had to rush to my wife, who was at a store to pay some of our debts as the collectors were already waiting,” he says. The first thing he bought, like Larry, was a sack of rice, a symbol of momentary victory against hunger.

Both of their experiences are just among the millions of stories of those who have received the SAP cash assistance. They felt immediate relief and hope in a situation so dire. But for every Larry and Rolando, there are countless others who have yet to receive any form of assistance, even as late as May 16, when Metro Manila is now under the modified quarantine.

The government has said that those who were “left out” during the first tranche will now benefit from the second tranche of SAP cash aid.  But there are still a lot of questions from the first beneficiaries, “May matatanggap po ba kami sa second SAP? Ubos na po ang pagkain namin. Maawa po kayo. (Will we receive a second SAP? Our food is already depleted. Have mercy on us).”

Or how could anyone be blind to this problem? “Mayor, may second wave po ba ng ayuda? Ibigay niyo na po. Gutom na po ang mga bata dito, may seniors at solo parents, at may nagpapa breastfeed na no-work-no-pay, may nagke-chemo din. Paano po kami mabubuhay? (Mayor, is there a second wave of help? Please give it out. Our children are already hungry, we have seniors and solo parents, we also have a breast-feeding mom experiencing ‘no-work-no-pay,’ there’s also someone undergoing chemo. How can we all survive?)”

Indeed, the challenges faced by this Covid-era government—from the highest officials down to the barangay officials—are truly “unprecedented.” SAP may heal the wounds for the meantime, but not cure the disease of poverty burrowed so deep in Philippine society.


Source: Manila Bulletin (https://lifestyle.mb.com.ph/2020/05/21/whats-up-with-sap/)