‘Hike social pension, end pandemic ayuda’

FINANCE Secretary Benjamin E. Diokno sees it more prudent at this point to use public funds for the newly-approved law increasing the social pension of indigent senior citizens rather than on cash aid associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Diokno insisted on Monday that public finances are “finite” and should be “allocated judiciously for programs and projects that would result in the greatest benefit for the greatest number of citizens and the overall welfare.”

The finance chief likewise reiterated that the cash assistance related to the Covid-19 pandemic should be discontinued given that the Philippine economy “has recovered.”

“With the normalization, it is more appropriate to continue the existing social protection programs — the DSWD welfare grants for poor families with children of school age, support for senior citizens, assistance to displaced workers, etc.

The ayudas associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, such as in Bayanihan I and II, should cease as normalization is achieved and as we learn to live with the virus,” Diokno told reporters in a message.

“For example, there are new demands on public finances such as the recently approved law mandating higher assistance for indigent seniors. It’s better to use public resources for the indigent seniors, if funds are available, than for the ayudas meant for the general public,” he added.

Only half of funds in budget

Earlier this month, House Deputy Speaker and Batangas Rep. Ralph G. Recto said the executive and the legislative branch should now work together on how to fund the law, which will cost P50 billion annually. The bill seeking the doubling of the monthly P500 pension to P1,000 for indigent senior citizens lapsed into law on July 30.

However, at the Development Budget Coordination Committee (DBCC) briefing on the proposed 2023 national budget at the House of Representatives on Friday, the DBM said that only P25.3 billion was allocated for the social pension to cover over 4.08 million indigent senior citizens.

Budget Undersecretary Tina Canda earlier explained that they were not able to include in their proposed national budget for next year the additional funding needed for the implementation of the new law, given that the bill seeking the increase in social pension of indigent seniors lapsed into law after the completion of the budget.  Nonetheless, she assured the public that they will work with Congress to resolve the issue of the funding requirement for the new law.

Over the weekend, House Deputy Minority Leader and ACT-Teachers partylist Rep. France Castro expressed alarm over Diokno’s statement during the DBCC briefing that giving out cash assistance related to the Covid-19 pandemic is “already a waste of public funds.”

Castro pointed out that the economy has not yet fully recovered given the rising unemployment and rising commodity prices.

The lawmaker also described the proposed 2023 national budget as “anti-poor,” adding that the economic managers would rather discontinue the distribution of ayuda than collect more taxes from the rich and big corporations.

Research group IBON Foundation also slammed Diokno, saying the finance chief’s statement was meant “to justify the insensitive P49.1 billion or 8.7 percent cut in social protection in the Marcos Jr. administration’s proposed 2023 national government budget.”

According to IBON Foundation, the social protection budget fell from P561.3 billion in 2022 to P512.3 billion in 2023, and noted that these are “far smaller than the P650.8 billion in 2020 at the height of lockdowns.” The group stressed that the economic managers’ “claim of full recovery is empty, citing the slowing economy and collapsed livelihoods of millions of ordinary Filipinos,” it added.

Neda’s stance

However, the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) said during the DBCC briefing that the current administration prefers to focus on creating job opportunities for Filipinos rather than just providing cash aid to lift millions from poverty.

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio M. Balisacan emphasized that while the government will provide social protection to hard-up Filipinos, this is not the focus of poverty reduction efforts.

Budget Secretary Amenah F. Pangandaman said during the briefing the government has allocated P206.5 billion across agencies that provide ayuda to Filipinos next year.

The lion’s share of the budget is lodged at the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) at P165.4 billion for the implementation of various social assistance programs.  This is followed by: the Department of Health (DOH) at P22.39 billion; the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), P15.2 billion; the Department of Transportation (DOTr), P2.5 billion; and, the Department of Agriculture (DA), P1 billion.

The assistance to be extended by the DOTr is for fuel subsidy, while that from DA will be allocated for financial and fuel subsidies for rice and corn farmers as well as fisherfolks.

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