Sunday Essay: How are Covid-19 cash transfers changing communities?

Sunday Essay Cartoon by John Gilbert Manantan

TWO to three times each week, a man pedals to our neighborhood and goes house-to-house, selling fish. The deals are not exactly contact-free. At one point, the household’s designated buyer hands over the cash and receives the fish. But the seller, Nelson, makes it possible for several households to get fresh seafood for a fair price without having to go to a crowded market.

Nelson is a hard-working and resourceful person. Our towns are more than five kilometers apart, and he bikes that distance while carrying two large buckets full of ice and fish, which he keeps in a cargo box welded to his bicycle. If they want, buyers can ask him to descale and gut the fish for them. (Just have lots of clean water, a chopping board and containers ready near your gate. And clean up afterward!) As he preps the fish, Nelson has a ready pitch to sell any crabs, shrimp, or more expensive fish in his buckets on that day.

Lately, though, Nelson has been disappointed.

He had hoped to be included in the second tranche of the social welfare department’s cash transfers to help poor families bear the impact of Covid-19. But he wasn’t. His barangay’s officials reportedly told him that his neighbors had complained: Why should someone with a source of income get any subsidy?

Nelson’s sense of fairness is injured. Imagine yourself in his shoes. He could use the P5,000 to P8,000 subsidy to get more fish and reach more households or set part of it aside for the repairs his bicycle will need. Instead, he has to hear about the grievances of neighbors, some of whom spend part of their subsidies on bets and gin.

Cash transfers for social protection programs can be effective. Despite the many complaints about how it has been delivered, the Social Amelioration Program has been a life-saver for many Filipino families. How much good has it done, exactly? That’s something economists, social welfare researchers and sociologists can eventually explore.

Last week, the World Bank published an informative post about using behavioral insights to make emergency cash subsidies more effective. One recommendation was to help recipients plan “to use the cash not only for immediate needs but also in ways that can help...jumpstart their livelihood after the crisis wanes.” (You’ll find that post here

As someone in the informal sector, Nelson could not have qualified for the Social Security System’s wage subsidy program. Nor could he have applied for the Camp grants that the labor department released. It seems the only agencies he could have turned to for some help were the social welfare department (which is empowered to help families working in the informal economy) and the agriculture department (which has reportedly released subsidies for farmers and fishers).

Instead, Nelson is feeling excluded. And reinforcing a sense of inclusion, of helping the distressed feel they are not alone in their troubles, sounds like it should be a goal of most safety net programs.

Some things went right in this government’s social safety nets in response to Covid-19. Within 23 days after the Bayanihan Law’s enactment, the budget department released nearly P200 billion to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). Some practical solutions were adopted. For example, DSWD convinced the Commission on Audit (COA) to allow the release of the second tranche even if the liquidation reports for the first batch of funds had yet to be completed.

All COA asked was that each barangay should submit a resolution where they vouched that everyone in their village who received Covid-19 cash transfers were qualified beneficiaries. COA has also asked all local chief executives (barangay captains, mayors and governors) to submit a full liquidation report of their emergency spending for Covid-19 within three months after the declaration of the state of calamity is lifted.

That declaration is due to end on Sept. 15. It wouldn’t be surprising, though, if the calamity period is extended. Yet when the time comes to learn from the full range of government’s Covid-19 responses, and it will, a better system of distributing subsidies is something worth aiming for.


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