[OPINION] P10,727 a month? Why numerical estimates shouldn't be taken that seriously

As a former lecturer on statistics and quantitative analysis, I was very fond of numbers, figures, and estimates.

In fact, I used to tell my students that statistics can estimate just about anything! As long as you have the right sampling technique, adequate sampling size, and you declare your margin of error, then you can make estimates about any characteristic of a certain population. This is what "inferential statistics" is all about.

However, as I got exposed to the various theories of the social sciences, more particularly to ideas in sociology, anthropology, and development studies, I realizes that there is more to the story than what numerical estimates indicate.

So when economic officials released a statement yesterday estimating that an average Filipino family of 5 can survive on Php 10,727 per month for their "no-frills" basic needs, I can’t help but reflect on various lessons from these disciplines in order to identify the following shortcomings of numerical estimates:

First, inputs into these estimation processes usually only involve experts, professionals, and state agencies – in other words, the powerful. Unfortunately, the voices of the poor and the marginalized are rarely heard. Judgments and recommendations are made on behalf of the average Filipino family about what they need. A good example is the detailed menu prescribed by economic officials. It contains generalized recommendations that barely accurately reflect the needs of the local population. (READ: How much does a family in the PH need to live decently?)

Second, there is little discussion on what is meant by "average," "basic," and "fancy." What is a "basic" Filipino breakfast? Does it include scrambled egg, steamed rice, and coffee with milk (as prescribed)? What makes this more "basic" than, say, a breakfast that includes a combination of fish and vegetables? Or does that already fall under the category of a "fancy" breakfast? Who gets to decide on the meaning of "average," "basic," and "fancy?" 

Because difficult judgements are needed about what is "average," "basic," and "fancy," economic officials often resort to random and arbitrary categorizations and illustrations (e.g. again, the sample menu prescribed) that are usually far off from the aspirations and desires of the average Filipino. 

Finally, these economic estimates usually involve a limited understanding of the complexity of arrangements and relationships within a Filipino household. There is a diversity of income-generating activities and networks that differ from one family to the next. Besides, each family has its own and unique set of needs and preferences. Unfortunately, surveys (e.g. Family Income and Expenditure Surveys) that collect information on "households" treat them as merely discrete groups of people organized according to barangay or sitio. Filipino families are complex and they should be understood as more than just an administrative grouping of household units. (READ: [ANALYSIS] On poverty lines and counting the poor)

These weaknesses make estimation processes incapable of properly reflecting the concerns and aspirations of the Filipino family. They are simply an inadequate tool and they can lead to a top-down reading that is out of touch with the plight of the majority. (READ: [ANALYSIS] How well are we measuring PH poverty?)

If economic officials really want an honest accounting of the needs and preferences of the public, then other methods of the human sciences can help. Ethnography, a research method that includes detailed descriptions of behaviors and practices in a given community, is a good example. Ethnography as a process involves being with people, interacting with them, talking to them, and listening to them. (READ: Who are the middle class?)

However, ethnography is difficult for two reasons. First, ethnography takes time. A lot of time. It takes months or even years to come up with an "estimate" of what a community really needs. Second, ethnography requires a lot of empathy, of putting oneself in the shoes of another. Although techniques on showing empathy may be taught, developing empathy takes time and experience.  

These are the reasons why economic officials, with their limited time in office, often resort to numbers and figures. I am afraid that these estimates are just an easy way out. They want data and results, and they want it quick. 

Don’t get me wrong: statistical analysis is complicated and it can be very useful. But its findings, used to make generalizations about a population, have the potential to be half-cooked. The insights gained are not as deep and they lack what anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls a “thick description,” one that utilizes peoples’ own indigenous and local experiences.

After all, I believe that the average Filipino family has better dreams and aspirations than what the economic officials can estimate. For a start, I would like to think that they prefer something more than scrambled egg, steamed rice, and coffee for breakfast. – Rappler.com

Justin G. See is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social Inquiry in La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. His research examines the politics and power behind climate change adaptation programs in the Philippines.