A teacher in junior high school once told us during class that it is not our sin if we were born poor, but it will be our sin if we die poor.
I only learned as I was writing this that it was a quote from Bill Gates, but a significant difference is that he only referred to it as a “mistake.” On the other hand, my teacher used the word “sin,” which provided more exclusive weight to every poor person’s supposed responsibility to get away from their miserable situation.
I was reminded about such an encounter as I think about the activity for my elective class in sociology, asking me to reflect on how my personal troubles are connected to broader public issues. And then I figured that it was because the very point of the question reveals what is problematic about the stated claim: It placed the burden solely on the poor people—as if it was merely a matter of choice
A personal trouble that instantly came to my mind was the many instances where I could not relate to some of my friends because I had a different life. For instance, a recent trend in social media was about how you know you came from a typical Filipino family if you experienced being forced by your parents to join swimming, piano, or violin classes during school breaks. I could not relate to it at all because my summers as a child were spent playing street games under the sun.
Similarly, during my first year in UPLB, when we still had face-to-face classes, I was intimidated as a student who was a product of public schools since grade school. I had a hard time interacting with my classmates who were graduates of popular private schools like La Salle, Santo Tomas, or Ateneo. I was also not able to accept many get-together invites simply because I either didn’t have money or that what they intended to do was too expensive for me. Even right now, in the online class set-up, I still feel a huge gap between my classmates and myself in terms of gadgets, internet access, and overall home environment.
Perhaps a major reason for the trouble that I have shared is because I was born to a lower-middle-class family, and I never really had a taste of the affluent life. My parents are incredibly hardworking and responsible, but they could never land high-paying jobs because neither of them was able to finish college. My father only reached second-year college, while my mother could not complete even her elementary education. The primary reason was that education was expensive, and their lack of resources to continue held them back.
Perhaps the central and most direct public issue that I could relate to this situation was the poor access to free education during my parents’ time. It was only recently that tertiary education became free in state universities and colleges. However, even at this point, I can say that it is still financially challenging for people like me—which further reveals the other related public issues like poverty. These broader public issues pushed my family to where we are now, and our social status led me to the personal trouble that I had shared.
To say that it is a mistake or even a sin to die poor is a privileged and perhaps uneducated stance. Although not born as rich as he is right now, Bill Gates was born to a higher-middle-class family and had access to prestigious education. It is safe to say that he probably never really had any experience of how it is to be among the poorest of the poor, and his privilege blinded him. My teacher, whose profession is inclined to the natural sciences, probably never had the chance to learn about social science ideas like intersectionality, for instance.
The situation of my parents and many other people from the lower- and lower-middle-class is proof that “sipag at tiyaga” cannot absolutely determine one’s fortune in life. I do not intend to discredit those who were able to make it, but to impose that idea on everyone is an utter disregard of the bigger context of public issues surrounding every individual’s personal troubles.