THE IMPORTANCE of family to the individual is almost an article of faith in the Philippines. I remember the bewildered look of our respondents in a research project when we posed the question, “Is it important to have a family?” It was as if we had come from another planet, since we asked a question whose answer was obvious: yes. And just in case we did come from another planet, the respondents all zeroed in on the fact that life is simply unimaginable without the family. Whether they are down and out or happy and successful, Filipinos always have their families conveniently nearby.
The family is a major thread that runs through individual Pinoy life stories. The strivings of Filipinos are rarely just about “I” or “me.” The desire to provide a better future for their families propels hundreds of thousands of Filipinos to work abroad, risking life and limb and defying wars and bans. I find myself muttering, “only in the Philippines,” when I hear contestants citing their fervent wish to help their families as a reason for joining a competition. And in their moments of triumph, a thank-you speech is not complete without mentioning God — and the love and support of family members. Just as real are the stories of those who had been abandoned, abused, and failed by their families, and the havoc this has wreaked on individual lives.
And so my (fearless) forecast is that the family will continue to be the source of the Pinoy’s identity, strengths, and the object of his or her aspirations and affection. The family, however, is not just the dispenser of nurturance and emotional sustenance. As the basic building block of society, the family is tasked with the responsibility to provide for the material support of its members, particularly the young, the frail, and the elderly. It is in this arena where many Filipino families have been struggling for decades. Past trends and present conditions suggest that Filipino families will be in for more rough sailing 10 years down the line. Given the country’s fragile economic base and the uncertain prospects ahead, securing economic support will be the major challenge that will sorely test the resilience of our most cherished institution.
There are already some 84 million Filipinos today. Our burgeoning population would have meant a viable market and more human resources if our economy were robust and could provide jobs. The search for jobs — particularly regular work, a rarity in these days of contractual employment — has become an obstacle test of sorts as new entrants to the labor market (about 800,000 a year) and past waves of jobseekers compete with each other. Unemployment rates continue to hover at around 10 percent.
The implications of our growing population given the sad state of our economy are worrisome. In 2003, Filipino women had about 3.5 children, which was among the highest in Southeast Asia — compare this with the total fertility rate of 1.3 children in Singapore or 1.7 children in Thailand. A high fertility means a young population — four out of 10 Filipinos are under 15 years old as of the 2000 census — that would require investments in health and education before they can be productive. Even if our population growth rate has gone down to 2.34 in 2004, it would take many years before we can enjoy some breathing space. Due to high fertility in the past, our population will continue to grow because future Filipino parents have already been born.
A RECENT study by the Statistical Training and Research Center indicates that under the best-case scenario, the Philippines will eventually say goodbye to poverty — but not until 2045. In the meantime, poverty is and will be very much a day-to-day reality for close to one-third of our population. Based on 2000 data, 28.1 percent, or 4.3 million families, which further translates to 26.5 million Filipinos, live below the poverty line. This was just slightly lower than the 28.4 percent of poor families as of 1997, indicating the slow wheels of development processes.
Data from other studies paint a bleak picture. Just recently, a Social Weather Stations survey found that 15 percent of our population had experienced not having anything to eat in the past three months. In 2003, expenses on food that had traditionally taken out a large chunk of the Filipino household’s budget declined while expenses on other items, such as transportation and communication, registered an increase. Apparently, families have been spending less on food to be able to cover other expenses. With the end to the economic malaise still nowhere in sight, more and more Filipino families are wondering where the next meal would come from. Shelter, education for the children, and health have become out of reach for poor families. Even the middle class — fast becoming endangered in the Philippines — is finding it increasingly difficult not to slip into the category of the new poor. No wonder that economic problems are among the major causes of stress among Filipino families.
The anxieties, insecurities, and lack of choices wrought by poverty or limited economic means can have deep and far-reaching consequences for the capacity of the family to be caring and supportive of its members. The rise of dual-earner families is, in large measure, dictated by economic need. The demands of the workplace could eat into family time, thereby reducing the time that parents and children can spend together. With the participation of women in the labor market, the family experiences a “care deficit” or the shortage of workers (traditionally mothers or other women in the family) who assume care-giving responsibilities. Presently, the care deficit pertains mostly to the care of children, but in the near future, as the number of elderly Filipinos (i.e. those aged 60 or older) increases, the family will also have to consider how it can provide the elderly adequate care and support.
Families used to bank on education as the vehicle of social mobility. This is why Filipino families put such a high premium on sending their children to school all the way to university (sometimes without as much regard for what type of education as long as it is a college degree); the hope was, a college education would help clinch a better job and a brighter future. Since the 1970s, however, another route to social mobility has been opened: overseas employment. The lack of employment opportunities and/or the low wages in the country have driven millions of Filipinos to leave their families to work abroad. In the last 30 years, many families have moved out of poverty or improved their economic conditions, thanks to the remittances sent by family members who work abroad. The economic benefits of migration, however, have been tempered by concerns about social costs, particularly the perceived threats to the stability of the family.
THE POTENTIAL impact resulting from international labor migration has been the subject of much speculation. The separation of family members is in itself a transgression of the ideal of close family ties. This seeming “contradiction” can be understood when we consider the motivations of Filipino migrants: migration is something that they have to undertake to improve their family’s well-being. When it was mostly the men who took up jobs abroad, their departure was seen as part of their role as providers. When women started leaving, their migration challenged the ideal of stay-at-home mothers who serve as the light of the home (ilaw ng tahanan). Moreover, their ascendance as the primary provider has shaken traditional notions of women’s earnings as simply supplementary. Because of their traditional role as the primary caregiver, when women migrate, the family goes through more adjustments than when it is fathers who migrate. In some instances, the departure of mothers has led to fathers assume caregiving responsibilities; more commonly, however, other female family members take on the caregiving function.
Changes in gender roles, the meaning of family and practices of family life, husband-wife relations, and the relationship between parents and children have been noted in our recently concluded study on the children and families left behind. At the same time, some things remain unchanged. Even if they are physically separated, the importance of the family has not diminished among migrants and their families. Children continue to regard their parents as their role models. The access to cheaper and faster communication — and the popularity of cell phones — is a major boon in sustaining family ties across the miles.
More families will continue to be separated by migration, partly because of persisting economic difficulties, and partly because the vast networks of Filipinos abroad will be a major factor in facilitating migration. The seeds of migration are already part of the life plans of young children. In our nationwide study of children aged eight to 10, 47 percent (and 60 percent among the children of migrant workers) said they would like to work abroad someday. Filipino networks, of which the “transnational network of kin” is an important component, will continue to be established in different parts of the world, sustaining and generating further migrations.
IN MANY ways, the emerging forms of family arrangements and role realignments observed among the families of overseas Filipino workers are not unique to this sector. Nonmigrant families are also going through similar transitions, except that the triggers are factors other than migration. It is perhaps in the area of changing gender relations that migrant families are showing some groundbreaking examples by suggesting that it is possible for men to be caregivers, that women can be providers and mothers at the same time (although the latter role is played out from a distance), and that children can be cared for by other family members. Although these changes are underway, the idea that parents are the best persons to care for and rear children persists; in particular, mothers continue to be regarded as irreplaceable in their role as the “light of the home.” This will be a source of burden and guilt for mothers who have to take on the role of providers and a source of emotional displacement for the children.
In the years to come, Filipino families will depart more and more from the ideal of the nuclear family consisting of two parents and their children. Marital strains and to some extent, personal choice, will give rise to more single-parent families and “blended” families (i.e., families formed by partners who had previous relationships or marriages). Through these reconfigurations, it is likely that the extended family will continue to play a major role in seeing family members through the rough spots. It will be a long time before the family, in its various forms, ceases to be the first and last — and preferred — safety net of ordinary Filipinos.
Practices of family life are in for many changes. As work demands intrude more into personal and family time, families will have to try harder or devise new ways to be family. As we are seeing now, technology — particularly communications technology — will contribute to cement family ties as Filipinos become more mobile or are increasingly drawn to the workplace and face other competing demands. Fundamental changes in gender roles (e.g., men taking a more active role in caregiving responsibilities) will still be a major hurdle, even in 2015. In all likelihood, women will get more help from time-saving devices and the expanding service industries. These options, however, will not be possible for poorer families.
The next 10 years will bring to the fore many family issues. Previously regarded as private matters, family issues will increasingly be part of public discussions. This is a healthy and needed development because many of these issues will be affected by and will affect aspects of our public lives. State support to help families achieve the number of children that they want will, hopefully, be a reality in 2015, thanks to the advocacy of various sectors. More community-based and society-wide solutions to family issues such as childcare and elderly care will have to be worked out as families struggle to balance their multiple responsibilities in a more uncertain world. We will have to brace ourselves for the challenges ahead and to take an active role in shaping families that will raise future Filipinos who will be as concerned and committed to their families as to the larger society.
Maruja Asis is Director of Research and Publications of the Scalabrini Migration Center. She is a sociologist long involved in migration studies, and a large part of her research deals with the relationship between migration on the one hand, and gender, family relations and social change on the other.