The Importance of Being Empiricist

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By Marrian Ching, Mulat Pinoy Community Manager

“Right now we are growing at about two million per year, so those ten years means an additional 20 million, and on the assumption that our poverty incidence is at 26%, that translates to additional 5.2 million poor individuals. That’s just a very quick estimate,” said Dr. Arsenio Balisacan without so much as a pause. This was his response when he was asked about the difference ten years can make in terms of population and poverty if the government chooses not to implement policies that will address the country’s population growth. His unassuming presence commanded the attention of the audience as he answered the questions thrown his way.

Dr. Arsenio Balisacan and Dennis Mapa, PhD

Beside him sat Dennis Mapa, PhD, Director for Research at the UP School of Statistics, who had just finished his presentation by saying “my partner will answer all the questions now,” as he handed the microphone to Balisacan, drawing laughter from the audience.

Balisacan and Mapa, both members of the Asia Pacific Policy Center, together with Jose Rowell Corpuz, a PhD Candidate at the UP School of Economics, have just finished three studies on Philippine demographic transitions and dividends in collaboration with the Philippine Center for Population and Development (PCPD). The summary and highlights of the three studies were presented by Mapa at a symposium entitled Can Population Management be Mainstreamed in the Philippine Development Agenda? held last May 18 at the Discovery Suites in Ortigas.

Mapa’s discussion focused on the importance of formulating developmental policies geared towards the reduction of the country’s total fertility rate, thus speeding up the Philippines’ course towards demographic transition. A demographic transition would then translate itself into two demographic gifts or dividends – the first would be a higher per-capita income, while the second would be a higher savings rate among the elderly.

While Mapa’s presentation covered most of the bases, nothing was left to interpretation as UP School of Economics Professor Emeritus Solita Monsod and former Senator Vicente Paterno II chose to keep their equally trained eyes on the target: the elimination of doubts and weaknesses in Balisacan and Mapa’s presentation of the study.

Population Commission's Tomas Osias with Former Senator Vicente Paterno II

Both engaged in a crossfire with Balisacan, who jokingly referred to the “division of labor” he shared with Mapa before he began his response to the first slew of questions thrown his way. The challenge of going beyond the provincial statistics and deeper into the municipalities were repeatedly brought up by Paterno and Monsod, while Balisacan detailed the constraints of the existing statistical data on the municipal level from the National Statistics Office – the use of which would have resulted in a study with weaker reliability.

Paterno began by saying that he wished “it were possible to have data on a smaller scale” to which Balisacan responded, “Unfortunately, the constraint here really is the statistical system,” as he began a brief discussion of the constraints in statistical data, brought about by the difference in “representativeness of the data at the level of the municipalities and the level of cities as opposed to provinces.” Balisacan further explained that the data from the National Statistics Office are accurate only to the level of the province and “going beyond that the data becomes noisy.”

Monsod recognized Balisacan’s concern, but then suggested that the data at the level of municipalities be used instead to look at poverty and age structure, since both sets of data are accessible and relatively accurate as proven by a map Mapa had shown in his presentation. The map was in the last slide of Mapa’s presentation, highlighting key points of the study such as poverty and the presence of young dependents, giving the audience a clear picture of the unmistakable relationship between the two.

Balisacan acknowledged that providing a poverty map linking the young-old ratio and poverty incidence in the municipal level is “okay,” but emphasized that going beyond that may prove to be more difficult than it seems. For example, looking for a relationship between fertility rates and poverty incidence becomes close to impossible at the municipal level since the difference between certain variables are blurred–for example, the access to versus the actual presence of hospitals in some municipalities. “It’s a bit misleading, a bit noisy,” Balisacan emphasized.

“Nobody’s asking for an econometric model on a municipal level. There’s just no data for that,” Monsod replied, but then continued on to say that it’s the effects that are being discussed, and these are clearly summarized by the map showing poverty and dependency ratio: two data sets that are easily acquired and are, in fact, already on hand.

“My God, that should be so easy to do because you do have those two data sets so, just say yes,” Monsod ends emphatically, drawing laughter from the audience.

Gamely claiming the role of the “devil’s advocate,” Monsod then pointed out other crucial weaknesses in the study – the kind that of weaknesses that she says could cause the strengths of the paper to “go down the drain.”

The first had to do with the positive correlation of the contraceptive prevalence rate, total fertility rate, and labor participation rate –a conclusion supported by the numbers presented by Mapa. “This is what they are going to focus on, and unless you focus on that and point out what the actual data [was], what the profile was of the data, you’re going to be bombarded by that kind of criticism,” Monsod points out.

Monsod also zeroed in on the loophole in the argument regarding the savings rate dividend. While a decline in fertility rate may translate to an increase in the savings rate among the elderly, the Philippine context provides a different definition for “savings,” as Filipinos tend to invest in human capital instead of in bank accounts. Monsod opined that Filipinos tend to think “Hey, I’ve got a built-in social insurance, a social safety net with my younger children,” which is why if the study can’t give a good-enough response to this kind of mindset, then the study weakens considerably in relation to the local context.

“By the way, what was your answer to Mr. Osillas’s point about the Cagayan Valley having a very high contraceptive prevalence rate and a very high total fertility rate? I noticed you looked at something,” Monsod asked. “You did not find anything?” Monsod followed up, again drawing laughter from the audience. “When Osillas said something you immediately looked, but you did not say anything,” she then continued, as she joined in the laughter.

Balisacan responded quickly: “There are many factors that influence fertility rate; the prevalence of contraceptives is just one. As you have seen, there is income, the income of households has a very powerful influence, and Cagayan Valley is not a rich province on the average, and has a very high poverty incidence. [Their lack of] access to health, access to education, to service, this works against the objective of lowering fertility rate, so this swamps away the effects of contraceptives,” he explained, as Monsod nodded in agreement.

“Coming back now to that point of (name of Osillas) is good, as always from Winnie,” Balisacan ended, referring to Monsod using her popular nickname.

Balisacan also entertained the idea of revising the study to include the points raised by Paterno and Monsod. “I think that in the next revision, and we are compelled to do some revisions if we can help it, we are to separate the natural family planning services as a variant from the modern practices,” he said. The only constraint however, according to Balisacan, was that “we are looking at provincial level of analysis and the prevalence of modern family planning services is very slow. Ideally we will capture this better using household level data. We’ll see.”

“Winnie’s again correct in interpreting the savings as a determinant or as influenced by family size and income,” Balisacan continued. He agreed that one of the motives for having a big family size, at least for the poor, is that children are seen as insurance, and notes that existing literature supports this argument. However, Balisacan refocused the discussion by saying that “one can disentangle and weaken that by providing education to the children, so even with a small number of children, the parents could have the insurance that they want.”

He then continued by focusing on other factors such as the availability of quality employment. “Improving access to employment, quality employment, for women will also have income effects and lessen demand for children as insurance,” he said, but also admitted that they have to tighten that argument a bit.

After the symposium, Monsod concluded that the points that made in the symposium were “essentially trying to make the message a little more effective.” There is a need for an effective translation from the econometric models to a form that is easily understood by more people, and “the work overall is that kind of translation,” she opined.

Monsod went on to note that in the presentation, “the methodology is transparent and the weakness are transparent,” something that the audience should congratulate the researchers for.

“I think that we should come out here hoping that we get the same kind, or insisting that we get the same kind of empirical soundness in the kind of conclusions or findings that are bringing thrown at us,” Monsod said in conclusion, but not without revealing that she was asked to do the wrap-up for the symposium just before it started, again drawing laughter from an audience that hardly had any questions left as the symposium ended.

Read the policy brief on Scribd. See more photos from the symposium on Facebook.

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