Philippine Class Structure, Revisited

The core of this article ran about a year ago. I’ve since added the class “Rational Climbers” and will now try to put it into a context that is useful.

This article is commentary. It does not pretend an academic or statistical foundation. It is a westerner’s impressions of Philippine society gleaned by living in this beautiful, vibrant country. Joe’s aim is to understand the Philippines and contribute to the pool of ideas that encourages continued progressive development.
There are classist societies and there are classy societies. The trick is to get from one to the other by making sure there is an upward drive so that people gain by helping their nation gain. Helping it to be more productive, safer and wealthier.
As I observe the Philippines, it seems to me there are clear class distinctions defined by a person’s wealth, geography, education and power. Some are large, others small. There are walls between some of the classes and that is troublesome. It means people have a hard time moving up and the nation’s character comes to lack the drive that is needed to progress with determination.
Going from bottom to top, hidden to visible, non-influential to influential, we have:
  • The Tribal Class: The mountain or island tribes. Almost no wealth, geographically isolated (a blessing and a penalty), limited education, and no influence outside the local community. This is the invisible class of Philippine society. Members have few roads and limited utility infrastructure, weak law enforcement, and no health care. They are the families washed away by mudslides and poisoned by mine effluents. And the rest of the nation forgets about them until there is another disaster that thrusts them onto the front pages of the newspapers.

  • The Subsistence Class:  The agrarian and laboring workers. This is the vast, sweaty core of a thin but broad Philippine economy. These are the people who work for P200 or less a day, with no future job promised. Career is an unknown word. Forget social security and health care. They work the rice fields, fish the seas, dig the foundations, haul the cement, climb the coconut trees, whack the weeds on the side of the road, drive the Jeepneys , staff the local stores, provide household services, and pedal tricycles. They are the Philippines, in its most honest, hardworking, fun loving and sustaining self. They don’t have enough money to be corrupt but they have so little money they will sometimes “innovate” to get some more. They have lots of kids and send them to the fields early to help put rice on the table. They are the worker bees of Philippine society, locked into poverty by an overabundance of mouths to feed and almost no way out. That needs to end.
  • Low-End Skill WorkersMasons, carpenters, call center workers, store department managers, small store owners, shop foremen, bus drivers, military men, policemen. People in this class can support a family and send their kids to public school. They are the entry point to ambitious self-improvement, and could succeed if the points of progression were not all blocked. And if aspiration, like career, were a prized concept in Philippine society. It is not. But kids born to these parents do have a small chance to break out. They would have more of a chance if the public schools weren’t such a mess of overcrowded, under thinking pools of obedience. Low-end skill workers cluster around large towns and urban centers. TESDA is crucial to their success and growth.
  • The Rational Climbers:  The class of Rational Climbers encompasses overseas workers and Filipinas who marry foreigners. Climbers boldly seek exit from three other classes: (1) The Subsistence Class, (2) Low-End Skill Workers, and (3) Professionals. They are rational because they intuitively do the math and decide the reward is worth the risk to embark upon a radically different lifestyle, and they are climbers because they have the clear aim of improving their lives. The motivation that drives them is best summed up in the statement: “Enough of this!” For professionals, the second part of the statement might be: “I have skills and am tired of struggling along on this measly income.” For a young, single woman, it might be: “It is a choice of security and money, or babies, and I want security and money.” For a worker, it might be: “Canada may be a giant ice cube, but businesses there pay real money”, or : “The Middle East is strange, but they have oil and gobs of cash; I’m going to go get some.” How do we bring them home? Bring families back together? That would also contribute to the character of the nation.
  • Professionals: Teachers, doctors, lawyers, business owners, tech workers, call center managers, government officials, higher ranked military and police officers, engineers, journalists, bank managers. They have college degrees and generally must know somebody to make the leap from sluggish career to meaningful career. Their family ties help in many ways. Funding their schooling. Opening doors. Establishing an ideal of a higher standard of living. They form a sound middle class with potential to move up. They look down on a lot of people for they know they have power over their clients, and a better education. Their professional skill levels are often, ummm rudimentary, but the country does not demand more. The professionals need to be challenged by competent competitors. They should not be able to get rich and be lazy just because they have a diploma.
  • The Priests, Imams and Assorted Other Men of Cloth: This is a small, isolated class of faith-based leaders. Each faith claims to have the sole ticket to heaven, and each condemns people who won’t buy that ticket. It arches over the Professional class, from priests to archbishops. The ever essential problem is, as near as I can tell, there is only one God, indivisible. So someone has to be blowing smoke. Religion is a big deal in the Philippines, even if Superstition is the master religion that overlays all other faiths. Catholic priests, Muslim imams, Protestant pastors. They have such influence in the Philippines, but I know of none that claims any responsibility for the outcome. For the condition of the land. For the poverty. For upside down values that find cheating acceptable. This class can take care of itself, for it has institutions behind it. It is best ignored.
  • The Entertainers: This is another isolated class, pretenders (not meant in a disparaging sense) who are held in extraordinarily high esteem by the masses. A boxer, singers, actors. They are rich and live well. Their kids can attend the best schools and many move easily into the Connected class, spreading their wealth amongst their family and favorites. They live a life as far removed from the subsistence class as Neverland is from London. They pretend to be one of the people, for they must do this to succeed. But they are not. They are on pedestals. It is fantasy for them and it is often fantasy for their audience, a dream that people of little opportunity might also become rich and famous. Entertainment shows and advertisers leverage this dream for profit. Poor people remain poor.
  • The Connected: These are the movers and shakers of the Philippines. Legislators, business owners, media executives, judges, governors, mayors, generals. They thrive on favors and somehow get rich even if their salaries are not rich. They are all well schooled and well traveled. Their kids will be, too. Some have the same names as the streets in Manila. The Connected people make sure the Philippines does not change because they would be threatened by a system that demanded capability over favor as the basis for reward. It is important to open pipelines into this group, break down the country club atmosphere and mediocrity that thrives.
  • The Oligarchs: These are the parallels to the kings, queens, princes, earls, dukes, duchesses of the British monarchy. Their wealth is enormous. They are an amalgamation of historically powerful landed families and big business moguls. They own the television stations, the telephone companies, the financial institutions, the shopping malls, the beer company, and the housing subdivisions. The oligarchs fund the politicians and, under the system of favors granted and received, get laws favorable to their continued enrichment. And the public, and the well-being of the Philippines, remain stuck in place, static, years behind the rest of the world. We should do a parade for the oligarchs and ask them to wear bejeweled crowns, they are so anachronistic. Then ban nepotism.
So now the question becomes, okay, we see the different classes, what are we going to do about it? How can we build a dynamic that allows people and families to work upward based on aspiration, skill and effort?  How do we get to production based on aspiration, and wealth based on production?
  • Minimum wage. This is a classic two-edged sword. If you raise the minimum wage, businesses cut jobs. Much of the Subsistence Class works at unofficial wages, unreported, untaxed, below minimum. A constructive approach is to move in small steps to implement and enforce employee welfare laws. Edge toward formal wage practices nationwide. Establish government unions for certain laboring classes such as farm workers. The goal should be substantial reduction of the underpaid subsistence class in 20 year by pushing in small steps toward formality and a higher minimum wage that can be supported by the nation’s growing wealth.
  • Education is fundamentally important to give young citizens the knowledge they can build on in order to move up the ladder. Broad-based schools, disciplined, with good teachers and fewer than 45 kids per classroom. The framework is there, and the budgets are generous under President Aquino. But the schools can’t keep up with the birth rate. Plus, the curriculum is stale and argued anew every year.  Here’s the secret. RH Bill or executive order promoting rational birthing levels. And the internet as a teaching pipeline. It can be the way pressures is released from facilities and teachers to focus on knowledge. 
  • TESDA is critically important to teach skills and to open an avenue up for the subsistence class and for low-skill workers to become high skill.  Fund the department generously and hold the leadership accountable for certain standards and results. Don’t ignore this “applied” piece of the educational pie. It is hugely important as a migratory path bridging classes.
  • If education is a constructive plank, it is also important to do some deconstruction. The Philippines is too much a closed society of good old boys and girls plugging up opportunity and ensuring mediocrity; you see this in the family names plastered on Manila street signs and in the legislature. A Fair Employment Act that discourages hiring “friends, family and favorites” and focuses solely on capability can fix this. Anti-dynasty laws in governance can help. Anti-trust laws in business. Break the barriers to entry to the Connected Class and rebuild the commerce of the nation on the energy of capable, ambitious people. Let the oligarchs die off in favor of a new breed of honestly competitive managers.
14 Responses to “Philippine Class Structure, Revisited”
  1. Edgar Lores says:

    This is a very useful classification as seen from an outsider’s viewpoint. Whereas the Hierarchy of Man’s Loyalties pertained to the individual, this Hierarchy of Social Classes pertains to the collection of individuals in the Philippines as a whole. It is certainly more descriptive than the ABCDE classification purely based on wealth, and more relevant than the Marxian dichotomy of bourgeoisie and proletariat.The hierarchy works as a general rule. If I may point out certain singularities and exceptions:1. The Muslims are a unique community based on geography, ethnicity and religion. As individuals, they would be spread over all the other classes in the hierarchy. They also have a royal class.2. The squatters or urban poor would fall into the Subsistence Class and/or Low-End Skill Workers.3. Columnists and bloggers would belong to the Entertainer Class. In terms of power, they do exert a greater influence than television or movie personalities. Or so it is to be hoped.4. Again, in terms of power, the Religious Class is ranked sixth. I would position them over the Entertainers. Surely, the homilies of a bishop or archbishop are valued higher than that of a TV commentator. Surely, Father Bernas’ opinions are worth more than Noli de Castro’s.5. As individuals, religious men are less influential than the Connected and the Oligarchs. But as institutions, the churches may exercise greater power than those two. Indeed on certain matters such as the Anti-God and RH Bills, the Church was/is able to bend the Oligarchs and one Entertainer (Sotto) to its will.6. The persistency of the Rational Climbers is not guaranteed. Overseas workers, some of whom belong to the Professional Class, have sustained the national economy for some time. But there have been instances of family break-ups; mismanagement of economic gains to the point of class reversion; and for some the inevitable re-settlement on foreign shores.7. The lower classes below Rational Climbers use brawn power. The middle classes between the Rational Climbers and the Connected use brain power, with skills derived from education or inborn talents such as singing, acting and fawning.8. The oligarchs need neither brawn nor brain nor beauty, although the latter two characteristics help to extend persistency.9. Apart from business interests, the oligarchy largely populate the legislative and executive branches of government. They also tend to hold the upper reins of provincial governments. Only the judicial branch is free from oligarchic participation, but I note that judges are not averse to lucre and the Velasco family may well form the first legislative-judicial dynasty.10. The measures to increase upward mobility in the classes and to decrease the power of the oligarchy are well thought out. The deconstruction strategy is particularly astute and should be applied to both ends of the class structure in order to increase the middle class. The RH Bill belongs here; nepotism is already prohibited by the Civil Service Commission codes which may lack teeth. But the anti-dynasty bill is caught in limbo in a catch-22 situation.11. Perhaps readers can suggest other ways of increasing the middle classes such as granting employees stock options for long service; the ability to convert annual leave to cash; targeting government welfare in rental and other forms of family assistance; and creating a special patrimony fund for current/future use from the exploitation of natural resources in logging, mining and other resources.

  2. Very nice extension and elaboration on the article, Edgar. Number 10 is very good, to extend the deconstruction to the lower reaches by passing the RH Bill. I'd say brilliant, but I know you'd return humble.I also admire anyone who can use "singularities" with such precision. I am reminded of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as Sherlock would find clues singularly curious. Also the phrase ". . . inborn talents such as singing, acting and fawning" cracked me up in a genuine LOL moment.Interesting to reflect on the Muslim community. I include the Imam's as having authority, although perhaps not as much here as the political leaders (versus, say, Iran). But otherwise, I see little distinction between Muslims and Christians; I think there are Muslims in every class but that representation is thin among the connected and oligarchs.And, yes, the priests should be moved up to just below the connected class.Yes, it would be nice to elaborate on the ways to break down the classes and move to a larger middle class. That's your number 11. You offer some good ideas.

  3. Anonymous says:

    JoeAm, nice rendering of Pinoy classes. Some call center agents are professionals, in-between careers, the underemployed. My nephew who works in the call center is a nurse. Edgar, you also observed the Velascos. Good point. But following the publisher Mr. Romualdez' s line of only two kinds of people in the Philippines, the "Ins" and the "Outs", the Velascos, I think, are in the "outs" category. Though they may have been the "ins" in GMA's time. Look out-Justice Velasco's kin's going to enter the Party List. Maybe they'll be on the up and up sooner than we think. Ah, Power and Lucre! Me, I bet on luck.DocB

  4. Thanks, Doc. The classes seem pretty well-defined to me. A few people move, one to the other. I like Edgar's brainstorming about how to build the middle class. I'd think that could be a policy objective for our 2016 president, and some of the ideas expressed here could mean a lot.

  5. Attila says:

    Joe:Can you tell me about the percentages of each classes. For example it seems to me that the Subsistence Class is about 70% of the entire population. The other classes are significantly lower in numbers compare to the Subsistence Class. Am I right?

  6. Most statistics I have seen measure the population according to economic terms, for instance reporting the size of the "middle class". It had been stable or shrinking as a part of the entire population, and is quite small relative, say, to the U.S.. My criteria are sociographic. The best I could do would be to guess, and your 70% for the subsistence class seems about right.For sure, some of the classes are small, much like the point of a pyramid going upward as power and influence get stronger. How many oligarchs? Wow. Fascinating. Maybe 100 or 200?How many "connected"? Legislature, cabinet, governorships, big city mayors, generals. Maybe 5,000 eh? Priests/Imams? 5,000? Entertainers, sports figures? 5,000?Professionals, a lot. 5%? Rational climbers, 5%? Skill workers, 10%? Subsistence, 70%? Tribal, 8.2%?Your question makes me think that a huge number of people sure depend on a very few for their well being. I'd like to see a doctoral candidate take this up to try to dig out more numbers. I don't like statistics much, but your question makes a very fascinating statement.

  7. Edgar Lores says:

    I have had some thoughts overnight and would like to add these for the record.There is something missing in the deconstruction strategy. The main goal of deconstruction is clear and that is to dismantle class barriers. So far, as I understand it, the strategy defined so far is twofold:1. To increase upward mobility through professional and vocational education; through certain economic measures as gradual increase in the minimum wage; and through legislation as in the RH Bill.2. To decrease the power of the oligarchy through the Executive branch, as in the dismantling of private armies; and through the Legislative branch, as in a Fair employment Act and an anti-dynasty bill.The missing arm of the strategy is the deconstruction of religious institutional power which, it has been noted, exerts greater force than oligarchic force on the political structure, the laws and the culture.Here are some starting points to consider:1. The principle of the separation of Church and State. This blog has touched on this subject and noted the difference between the US and Philippine constitutions. The absolute divide between the political sphere and the spiritual sphere must be amplified.• Elsewhere I have stated: “The State respects all religions and does not attempt to influence the tenets of faith. In similar fashion, the churches must not attempt to influence the state on earthly political matters for good or ill.”• This amplification does not advocate State prohibition of religious intrusion. It advocates unilateral restraint on the part of churches. It reminds the churches not to meddle.2. Legislation. Congress should reconsider some bills and author other bills that rightly seek to diminish the influence of religion:• The so-called Anti-God Bill (House Bill 6330) should be renamed so as not to frighten cowardly legislators. The bill, which sought to ban religious icons, symbols and ceremonies in government offices, should perhaps be modified to allow ecumenical services because the Constitution does recognize Divine Providence, but the notion that no religion is favoured must be emphasized, and the ban on religious icons and symbols must remain absolute.• The Constitution guarantees exemption from taxation of churches. Again, this blog has discussed the notion and possibility of penalizing churches for perceived infringements of the separation doctrine. This possibility must be given legal status. The INC, for example, should be fined for bloc voting. We can leave it to the legislators to differentiate the “fine” line between a fine and a tax.3. Philosophical underpinnings of Church theology. This is more the area of philosophers and theologians, but even as a thinking layman I can see the quicksand on which the Church stands.• The Church partly bases its teachings on Natural Law. The fallacy of this Law can be immediately seen in the variety and inconsistencies of what Father Bernas refers to as “secondary conclusions”.• The Church also recognizes the plurality of theistic and non-theistic religions, again as admitted by the good Father Bernas. Granted, acknowledgement of existence does not presuppose acknowledgement of essence. But the mere act of extending courtesy to opposing beliefs is, by implication, also an act of recognition to the substantiality, if not the substance, of those beliefs.4. Pernicious impact of the Church on culture. @Andrew Lim has commented on the correlation of the Church and corruption and is devoting a thesis on the subject. It would be immensely helpful if Andrew could publish or summarize his findings in this blog.I am convinced that the political chaos in the country springs from the absence and definition of what the founding fathers called “self-evident truths” and which I would call “first principles”. These first principles are evident in the economic sphere – in the ideas of capitalism, free market forces, private ownership and even globalization – but not in the political sphere.

  8. I observe that you, too, do your best thinking in the dark. You write such profound wisdom but I fear is beyond the grasp of legislators. Even if they read your piece which is rich with insight and ways to bring the Philippines into the modern world, they wouldn't know what to do with it.That is the gap. The wisdom exists. The leaders are not of sufficient intellectual depth to grasp it, or not talented enough to enlighten their peers and move ideas to acts.It is discouraging, actually. You have written this simple, brilliant piece and there is no one to read it and run with it. It is why we need young leaders, people who still have the drive to do bold deeds.

  9. LG says:

    I just bumped into this post. Love the classifications. Pretty accurate. Thanks for posting it.

      • LG says:

        Only 4 years late. Better late than never, huh. Also just recently learned you started posting in the Society in 2005. Am so far behind. Lol.

        • Joe America says:

          The first blog I have on record here was published April 1, 2010, April fools day for good luck. Readership was, on a good day, 25 to 50 reads. The writing was ignorant and contrived, but it fulfilled a purpose. I learned, both about the Philippines and how to cut a reasonably good phrase. I am deeply indebted to all the tutors who have had patience with the American blundering across the literary rice field looking for wisdom. Karl and Bert are the two regulars who have been along the whole time . . . and even before when we were all prowling the defunct “Filipino Voices” blog.

          • LG says:

            I appreciate the humility. You write like writing is in your nature. When I read your brief bio, I was not that surprised to see your transition/transformation to blogging from banking. Bloggers and bankers are alike to an extent. To stay useful and operational, each needs to attract; bloggers, readers/subscribers; bankers, depositors/clients. Marketing is at core in both. Bloggers market their ideas on subjects through writing; bankers, their business through products and services. What is being marketed must be seen as important, if not essential by the target group.

            Thank you for founding the Society and for setting up and implementing strict blogging rules. The Society is in a class of its own. I chuckle when you spam someone and advise them in their face. Unapologetic. Serves them right. Ha ha ha.

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