BETTER than statistics are trips to the rural areas and to city slums to see, feel or even experience the crippling poverty that is the bane of the Filipino masses. Yet while all the presidential bets, Manny Villar most particularly, promise to work to eradicate poverty, they are not saying how they plan to do it over the long haul and beyond their term of office.

The road map to a successful war against poverty must include heavy investments in free basic education and basic health care. Manny Villar’s promise to eradicate poverty is hollow at its core if all Filipinos, without exception, are not provided with free basic education (elementary and high school). Noynoy Aquino’s fight against corruption is meaningless if it does not conserve government funds so more could be poured into basic education for all.

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In the Philippines, the illiteracy rate (Unesco 2004 census) is pegged at 7 percent of the over-15 population. This translates roughly into 6 percent of all registered voters. These are the voters who will give their ballots, automation or no automation, to the highest bidder. These, plus millions more who are poorly educated or otherwise miseducated. Sociologically speaking, therefore, it is the lack of education that perpetuates poverty because, among other things, it elects corrupt and greedy politicians into office.

Quality of education has recently become an issue. Still, improving the quality of the education some Filipinos are getting is not as crucial an issue as the provision for basic education to all Filipinos of school age. Hence, even the issue of quality must be about that of the basic education of the Filipino masses.

But then, even if government has enough schools, desks and teachers for the basic education of all Filipinos, the poverty of many will keep them from availing of this opportunity. Some children will be forced by their parents to help earn the family’s daily rice in the farm or in the streets. Others will be too weak from malnutrition and disease to go to school. Many more would have died at birth or before reaching school age.

Therefore, to be earnest in giving every Filipino a true opportunity for getting out of the poverty bind, government must break this vicious cycle and provide for the proper nutrition and good health of poor children and their parents so they can go to school. One simply cannot overemphasize the importance of education and health in any long-term anti-poverty program. Candidates, therefore, at all levels must have free basic education and basic health care (including reproductive health, of course,) in their programs of government if their promise of a better life for Filipinos is to be believed at all.