What are the choices of the poor, and where do these lead them? How different are their choices from ours?
Last year there was this story about a woman who wanted to sue former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza for stopping a government program that gave poor urban women free contraceptives. That political decision led her to have to two more children, if I remember right.
Yes, she had a choice: she could choose not to sleep with her husband. And she did. When he insisted on his “marital rights,” she left him and lived with her mother, together with her two (or was it four? can’t remember) children. But she had no job, and in the end was pressured to go back to her husband (her mother couldn’t afford to feed her and her children indefinitely). She got pregnant again – twice. In that case, did she really have a choice?
Amartya Sen talks of poverty as a lack of choices, not just of money. In “Development as Freedom,” he told the story of a Muslim laborer, who was stabbed dead when he went to work in a Hindu area, at a time of riots between Muslims and Hindus.
“(He) need not have come to a hostile area in search of a little income in those terrible times had his family been able to survive without it. Economic unfreedom can breed social unfreedom, just as social or political unfreedom can also foster economic unfreedom,” Sen said.
During a discussion in our legal history class, one of my classmates said: “The poor have choices; they chose to be poor.” She recounted children who told her how they came to Manila and chose to sleep on the streets, though they had a house in the province. I remember a former maid, who chose to work for a wealthier employer, though I offered the same salary and a chance to finish her high school education (she wanted her own room, and my rented apartment was too small and had no maid’s room).
“We worked our butts off to be where we are” is a common sentiment among the middle class. Whatever we are – in terms of education, income, or professional standing – was achieved with sweat and blood, if not ours, then of our parents, or of our grandparents.
We chose to make sacrifices, and whatever we have – and are – is the result of, and reward for, those sacrifices. But the poor choose from among a different set of possibilities. For that Manila resident, the choice was between sleeping on the streets or with her husband. For that Muslim worker, the choice was between working in a Hindu area or letting his family starve.
We all have choices – but for the middle class, these choices often lead to a better life: a higher education, a better job, a healthier life. That is not always the case for the poor, whose limited choices sometimes lead not only to even greater poverty, but sometimes even to death.


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