Of Jelly Treats and Inflation

At the supermarket yesterday, a kid was trying to get her mom to buy a pack of jelly treats. They’re the inexpensive kind: the kind that you would expect most moms to put in the shopping cart without a second thought. Most of us don’t buy jelly treats, but to that kid it seemed like everything: the most colorful expression of happiness that every kid is entitled to.

The mom, though, didn’t have the same idea. Her shopping basket was already half-full of the essential groceries a household of five would need: rice, toiletries, baon, instant noodles, a bunch of wilted-looking sitaw, among other things. With a stern look in her eye, she looked at her kid and said: “Ibalik mo yan.” The little girl won’t have it, and kept trying to put the treats in the shopping basket. It was only in a heartbreaking moment that most of us tend to see all the time—but often take for granted—that the little girl put the jelly treats back into the shelf:

“Ibalik mo yan, nakakahiya. Kulang pera ni Mama.”

I’m pretty sure the mom would have wanted the treats for her kid. I’m sure she did well enough in school to get jelly treats. I’m sure she’s a well-behaved kid most of the time. I’m sure that if she got a less-expensive brand of hotdogs or chose core-less toilet paper she would have had the money for those treats. But that didn’t happen that day.  

***

Moments like that play out in grocery stores and supermarkets all over the country, but they happen more often these days. And all too often, when we say that we need to “curb household spending,” that expression rolls off the tongue more comfortably for some socioeconomic sectors than others.

Take Kinder Eggs, for example: a box is enough to completely destroy the daily household budget of what passes for the “Filipino middle class,” and just one is enough to starve a family which is, for all intents, borderline poor. At the rate things are going, any candy that cannot be shared by everyone in the family can wreck the household budget.

It’s something that borders on the predictable: when inflation in the Philippines hit a nine-year high last month, some sectors of social media—already high on political energy coming from two years of Rodrigo Duterte—cleaved in terms of interpreting the situation. At a time when our Agriculture Secretary eats weevil-infested rice to prove a point, it should be easy to see where all the outrage is coming from.

Of course, the outrage doesn’t seem to faze the most ardent supporters of Duterte: after all, inflation can be a nuanced thing. Not everyone is affected by inflation at the same rate, and certain sectors of society (depending on one’s interpretation of inflation) can benefit from things like higher prices on basic commodities, or foreign exchange rates. All it takes is human agency: don’t spend money you don’t have, start saving money, take an extra job, and surely the shortfalls of the economy won’t affect you.

The new socio-economic classification system set in place six years ago shows a lot of interesting data on indicators. The last graph is quite interesting, too: that things we already take for granted—like cars and computers and bottled water, even—play bigger roles in inequality than we would think.

***

Then again, whenever households tighten the proverbial belt, the wants of kids are almost always the first to go. Kids are often the first to feel the brunt of inflation. I’m sure thoughts go through the minds of kids who get a soft slap on the wrist for trying to get their parents to buy Kinder Eggs or jelly treats or what-have-you. Thoughts like, “Why can’t we afford this now, when we can afford it before?” Or “Don’t I deserve this?” Or “Why is that boy getting a Kinder Egg and I’m not?” And yes, these childlike questions somehow summarize inflation better than the theory.

Often the hushed reminders from parents not having any extra money are long-lasting lessons in basic economics: things that charts or Malthus or measures of kurtosis can’t teach you. And you have to make up the stories in your head: the father probably works himself to the bone, while the mother is trying desperately to make a small side business fly. I’m sure that it’s easy to solve inflation by spending less on things you don’t need and make as much money as you can, but all it takes for many middle-class families is one sickness to hurtle them to abject poverty. The story brewed in my head a bit as I observed the scene: suppose the little girl knew that there were better things than jelly treats, but chose that one because she gambled on it being the kind that her mommy can afford, because daddy was sick and needs medicines? 

Now again, these things play out on grocery stores everywhere every day. It seems normal and of little consequence until you unpack the gravity of “Ibalik mo yan, wala tayong pera.” Parents want things for their kids, too, but they can’t afford it right now: and in this economy, maybe never. And even something as simple as that is not without its own narrative. That parents feel humiliated when they have to give up candy or chips at the checkout line. Or that parents feel embarrassed having to buy the discount goods in place of name-brand things they used to patronize, but regain their pride for “diskarte.” Or that the mere mention of “wala tayong pera” could probably mold the esteem of their children at some point.

***

Let’s face it: the world could do better with a lot less of the unnecessary things we spend on each day. But we are always at a position to adjust our comfort levels to make do without them. Children don’t: not that we should spoil them, but we should make an effort not to deny them of the things that make them happy or feel worthy. Because the truth is that in a social climate that bears the heat from inflation, it is them who feel it the most.

This isn’t “romanticizing the poor,” or making a mountain out of a molehill, or what have you. I guess it’s just a call to not be numbed. Or that the realities of economics can be sometimes so insidious that the worst of it hides in plain sight. Or maybe that in this economy, we need more story.

In moments like these, that tacit understanding is burned into the spirit of children, and carried through adulthood: that the world is full of haves and have-nots, that the world is full of things you can and can’t afford, and all those things determine your economic standing. There are some things you can’t buy, so you put them back in the shelf. There are some stores you can’t go to, so you admire the displays from afar. The hardest-working people in your life—mom and dad—can only give you so much of what you want with what they have, and still others doubt their industriousness from places that are nowhere near the grocery store.

The most important people in your life—your kids—have to make do with the compromises you make, in a grocery aisle that embodies a great part of the human effects of inflation.

… the other things outside of that aisle, maybe that’s for another time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *