One year of BBM: More hype, less help

June 30, 2023

by Maricar Piedad

It’s almost one year since President Marcos Jr has taken office, and his administration has profusely hyped its achievements that have supposedly helped the Filipino people amid the economic crisis. Claims of aiding Filipinos and alleviating their suffering are what the President’s speeches have been about in his almost year-round local and international trips.

Marcos Jr took over the presidential seat at the height of a crisis brought by decades of neoliberalism and aggravated by harsh pandemic lockdowns. With the full reopening of the economy and a new administration, Filipinos hoped that their situation would improve.

But looking back, did the President really achieve that much and help the Filipino people as much as he claims?

Working people are worse off

The Philippines has been hit with multiple economic crises, but COVID-19 was one of the hardest the people ever faced, mainly due to the previous administration’s slipshod pandemic response.

The country was reeling from an unprecedented jobs crisis upon Marcos Jr’s assumption of the presidency. Unemployment was severe and only masked by a high degree of informality. The number of informal workers ballooned from 16.8 million in 2019 to 19.9 million in 2022. When Marcos Jr took over, this further increased from a monthly figure of 20.1 million in July 2022 to 20.8 million in April 2023. For every 100 so-called employed, 73 are informal workers. In the first 10 months of the cheery president, for every 10 jobs created, 8 have only been part-time.

Filipino workers have also suffered the historic decline in the real value of the minimum wage under the Duterte administration. The real value of the minimum wage, for instance in the National Capital Region (NCR) declined from Php538 in June 2016 to Php508 at the end of President Duterte’s term. There were only three mandated wage hikes in the NCR in the last six years. The real wage fell further to Php482 in Marcos Jr’s first 11 months, as increasingly reverberating clamor for a substantial wage hike has only fallen on deaf ears.

A wage hike has been legislated in the NCR right on the eve of the inauguration anniversary of Bongbong Marcos, an obviously politically motivated maneuver to placate the workers. But the nominal wage now of Php610 is still 47% short of the family living wage of Php1,160 that a family of five members should have. It is still a ‘poverty wage’ as the now monthly Php13,420 is still lower than the official poverty threshold of Php13,741 in the NCR.

The Marcos Jr administration has also been quite unresponsive to the fact that the poverty incidence had worsened from 2018 to 2021, claiming 3.5 million families or 20 million Filipinos. This official figure, however, is based on an incredibly low per capita poverty threshold of Php79 a day. Despite the figure being moderated by a definition that makes government blind to the real magnitude of poverty, the new administration has even cut by Php5 billion the budget for the myopic poverty alleviation program, Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), for 2023. The assignment of Larry Gadon as the Presidential Adviser for Poverty Alleviation is only indicative of how inexperienced and insensitive the Marcos Jr administration is to the severity of poverty.  

Marcos Jr also took over a nation that has the second worst hunger in Southeast Asia, only next to Cambodia. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that 48.6% of Filipinos were severely and moderately food insecure in 2019-2021. Eating healthy food also became unaffordable to about 68.6% of the population, as inflation only battered the cost of a healthy diet. Yet, the only response the president could think of is a loan program with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to distribute food stamps to a few hungry people, another drop-in-the-bucket approach that only serves to pacify the poor. 

Food prices have continued to increase, making food more and more inaccessible to many Filipinos especially among the poorest households. Food inflation accelerated in the last year, pushing the general inflation to a 14-year high in the beginning of 2023 and the highest in Southeast Asia at the moment.

Prices of food commodities – sugar, bread, eggs, cooking oil, fish, and the iconic ‘golden age’ onion – soared simultaneously and extraordinarily. But president Marcos Jr, who also appointed himself to head the Department of Agriculture (DA), could only think of the passive policy of importation instead of providing direct support to farmers and fishers. To tame inflation, the Department of Finance (DOF) has recommended importing these basic food commodities even to the detriment of local production, and the DA secretary has only listened to such advice. Agricultural trade deficit in 2022, reaching US$11.8 billion, is the largest in 43 years. The first quarter deficit from 2020 to 2023 is constantly increasing, now at US$2.8 billion.

Cereals account for the largest share in the country’s agricultural imports. The president early this year considered importing large quantities of rice to boost dwindling buffer stock. The plan did not push through, although the president has not totally abandoned the idea. In reality, by May 2023, the country has already imported about 1.3 million metric tons (MMT) of rice. The country imported 3.2 MMT of rice in 2022 and is seen to be importing about 3.8 MMT in 2024, the highest in the history of trade liberalization.

From 2017-2022, palay and corn production had average annual growth of -0.15% and 0.35%, respectively, a stark indicator that any new president or DA secretary should focus on supporting the increase in domestic production. The agriculture budget for 2023 gets a whopping increase of 25% from an average annual growth of only 1.2% in 2020-2022. The agriculture department, on the other hand, gets an increase of Php27.8 billion, 39.2% higher than 2022. But closer scrutiny reveals that the Marcos Jr administration has only increased support for inputs and mechanization, both are otherwise imported and sold or rented out to farmers.

The Marcos Jr administration had totally abandoned substantial economic relief to the disadvantaged, especially the direct producers, with the DOF secretary saying “it’s a waste of funds”. For 2023, the national government only allotted Php1 billion to provide Php3,000 in fuel subsidies for 312,000 farmers and fishers, a small percentage of the estimated 10.5 million Filipinos working in the sector and needing more than fuel subsidies.

Social services have dwindled even as we are coming from a severe pandemic crisis. There is no significant improvement in the situation that household out-of-pocket payments remain the largest source (42%) of health expenses, while social health insurance through PhilHealth is contributing only about 15% of total health expenditure. The president has not heeded the calls by medical practitioners and health workers for higher pay and compensation in their pandemic response. After dilly-dallying with the appointment of a health secretary, the president has finally designated the controversial Dr. Teodoro Herbosa, and this does not sit well even with government health workers.

Some may have put their hopes on President Marcos Jr to resolve our mounting problems, rather wrongly, as Bongbong Marcos did not present any platform at all during his campaign nor that “comprehensive, all-inclusive plan for economic transformation” that he announced during his inauguration.

False claims

Instead, the Marcos Jr administration is painting a fantastic picture of having programs and measures that benefit the majority of the population. But at best, these are “impact” projects that only benefit a small portion of the needy – “impact”, only referring to the administration’s projection of doing something, not much on changing the lives of the poor. These projects are shallow and do not address the root causes of the country’s social problems.

Bongbong Marcos picks up the same failed infrastructure approach to development, Build Build Build of the Duterte administration, changes its name to Build Better More (BBM) to suit his initials, and expects different results. The usual line is this is to attract foreign investments and to create jobs. But in the last six years, it has only supported the businesses of the country’s economic oligarchs and foreign corporations in infrastructure and real estate as well as in facilitating foreign trade and manufacturing. Under Duterte, while there was a general increase in construction work, these were mostly contractual, short-term, or part-time, and thus low-paying, lacking benefits and insecure. Part-time work ranged from 57.1% to 59% of construction employment from 2016 to 2020. And from July 2016 to April 2023, only 816,000 jobs were created in the construction industry. But during Marcos Jr’s first year, there were actually 203,000 construction jobs lost, falling from 4.5 million in July 2022 to 4.3 million in April 2023.

Bongbong Marcos also crows about the expansion of the marketing outlets, Kadiwa, the brainchild of the president’s mother then First Lady Imelda Marcos and which was revived by the Duterte administration. The DA reports opening and operating 500 Kadiwa outlets nationwide, but these have been insufficient to millions of small farmers that remain tied to usurers and merchants and to millions of consumers needing affordable food. To illustrate, there are 5.3 million Filipinos that are severely food insecure, according to the FAO – a stampede of about 10,600 people per Kadiwa outlet.

The Marcos Jr administration has also exaggerated its efforts in addressing the country’s housing backlog. It has launched the Pambansang Pabahay Para sa Pilipino Housing Program (4PH), which targets to deliver one million housing units yearly to reach a total of 6 million housing units by the end of Marcos Jr’s term. This target, however, is preposterous considering that the housing department delivered only an average annual of 200,000 housing units from 2016 to 2021. The agency has also only received a total budget of just Php1.5 billion for 2023, which is less than 1% of the entire 2023 national budget.

The national government said that the 4PH will be funded through Pag-IBIG and other funds from government financial institutions such as the Landbank and the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), which are now being eyed for the Maharlika Investment Fund. The government encourages private corporations to invest in 4PH, which potentially only makes shelters unaffordable for millions of homeless Filipinos.

The Marcos Jr administration has continued the Universal Health Care (UHC) program despite its poor delivery and performance. The government claims that 100% of Filipinos are now covered by the UHC and are in the database of PhilHealth. But PhilHealth utilization remains low, with only 13.8 million processed claims in 2022. Despite the poor performance of the agency, the government has still prioritized PhilHealth’s budget over direct health services, increasing by 25.3%, while the Department of Health-Office of the Secretary (DOH-OSEC) budget, which should be more for direct service provision only gets a 14% increase, an even much lower percentage increase than that in recent years.

In reality, instead of facing our problems, the Marcos Jr administration has ushered the country into a period of austerity – of less social services and protection, more taxes on the poor and middle class, in order to pay for a ballooning debt that has only sustained the infrastructure and trading businesses of the economic oligarchs. Instead, ‘development planning’ has remained in the neoliberal framework of relying on trade and investment liberalization and weakening state regulation and allowing big local and foreign business to run the economy.

Failed first year

It has been clear from the start that the presidency of Marcos Jr is not about reforms. It has always been devoid of focus, concern, commitment and action for the plight of the poor majority, even as Bongbong Marcos has chosen the economy as the theme of his administration. One year is enough to unravel that Bongbonomics lacks not only the basic knowledge of economics but more importantly a genuine concern for the toiling people.

Bongbong Marcos has not tackled the urgency of substantial wage hikes and decisive price control, and actually most of the time, has been mum about these issues. His administration has made a token recognition of the need to improve the quality of work opportunities and to generate stable and secure jobs, but has only continued to support neoliberalism that has in the first place eroded the economy’s capacity to create jobs.

Additional budgets for social services have been small, while there is a huge increase in debt servicing. The budget for militarism is even higher than budgets for health, labor, agriculture, and social welfare.

The Marcos Jr administration could have used his first year to put forward legislative reforms that would truly answer the socioeconomic needs of the people. But instead of addressing the most urgent social issues, the president has prioritized a self-serving agenda, such as the Maharlika Investment Fund and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – measures that benefit the elite few and local and foreign big business interests. He has also been preoccupied with promoting his name to the international community with hyped-up economic programs and false claims that belie the true condition of the Filipino people.

The first year of the Marcos Jr administration has been full of sunshine, at least as communicated falsely by the administration. But creative communications have only failed to conceal Marcos Jr’s inaction and incapability to genuinely serve.